Experts challenge U.S. online voting system

Citing concerns over security, four computer experts are urging the U.S. government to drop plans to allow U.S. civilians who reside oversees to cast their votes online.

The risks associated with online voting can’t be eliminated because the Internet and PCs are inherently insecure, according to the four researchers, who were among 10 experts invited by the government to analyze an online voting system called the Secure Electronic Registration and Voting Experiment (SERVE). The system could be put into use as soon as next month.

The system is vulnerable to the same types of cyberattack that threaten other Web sites and online services, including viruses or other malicious software, spoofing and denial of service attacks, the four experts said in a joint statement Wednesday. The online voting system could jeopardize voter privacy and allow votes to be altered, the experts said.

SERVE is part of the U.S. Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP). All mail-in absentee election functions have been placed on the Internet, allowing about six million U.S. citizens overseas, including uniformed services members, to cast their ballots online. The FVAP falls under the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD).

“We’re very concerned that a system we feel is insecure is going to be deployed,” said Barbara Simons, a computer scientist and technology policy consultant. “SERVE is called an experiment, but it is in fact not an experiment. There are not paper ballots, there is no way to verify after the fact to see if votes were correctly received and tabulated.”

The other three experts who expressed concerns about SERVE are computer scientists David Wagner, Avi Rubin and David Jefferson, from the University of California at Berkeley, the Johns Hopkins University, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, respectively.

Teenage hackers, terrorists, political parties — essentially anyone with an agenda and enough technical know-how — could subvert an election if the online system is put into use, according to Simons. The Internet is not secure enough for something as serious as electing a government official, the experts agreed in their statement.

“What gives me nightmares is that SERVE might go forward and appear to work correctly…then Internet voting might come widespread for the whole country, perhaps in the 2008 election, and that could be a serious threat to our democracy,” Simons said.

Regardless of the experts’ opinions, the DoD is moving ahead with SERVE. The system could be used for a primary election as early as next month, and will certainly be up and running for the November presidential election, said Glenn Flood, a DOD spokesman.

“We’re not stopping the SERVE program,” he said. “We’re aware of the concerns and we’re calling it a minority report because it is only four out of the 10 review group members who felt they had to express themselves.”

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