Cyber Eye: Online ballot warnings should be heeded

William Jackson

The Defense Department responded predictably to analysts who criticized its online voting program for U.S. citizens stationed overseas.

'We don't have any intention of stopping this,' DOD spokesman Glenn Flood said. 'The only 100 percent safe solution from a security standpoint is not to do it. That is not an option.'

In DOD's Secure Electronic Registration and Voting Experiment under the Federal Voting Assistance Program, up to 100,000 voters from 50 counties in seven states could cast online ballots for this year's primary and general elections.

But analysts warned that the concept of Internet voting is fatally flawed and that SERVE should be scrapped. A death sentence is pretty severe. So are the risks.

Security has been SERVE's No. 1 priority since its inception. The risks stem not from flaws in SERVE software, safeguards or procedures. The risks come from weaknesses inherent in the Internet and in user PCs over which DOD and its contractors have no control.

The Information Technology Association of America has called these concerns academic. 'We are talking about a small program, using the Internet in a test environment to enfranchise thousands of men and women in the armed services,' ITAA president Harris N. Miller said.

But the test will handle real votes'the only ones those citizens can cast. Using real voters in a live election as guinea pigs is unacceptable in a country where every vote is supposed to count.
The Internet is a powerful tool, and the idea of Internet voting is attractive. It has great potential for more participatory democracy.

The Internet, however, is not the right alternative for every flawed paper system. A successful test of SERVE will not mean it is ready for rollout.

'The danger is that this system will work fine in a low-stakes setting like these first trial runs,' said Avi Rubin of Johns Hopkins University, one of the analysts. 'That will likely be used as an argument for expanding use.'

Electronic voting'even Internet voting'could be the wave of the future. But more attention needs to be paid to the very real security risks facing it now.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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