Public and experts split over e-voting security

Despite the concerns of security professionals, the general public has a high level of trust in electronic voting.

More than half of those polled in a recent survey had a favorable opinion of e-voting, and three quarters had confidence in the technology.

But a majority of computer professionals attending recent IT security conferences expressed concerns. Nearly half said they had no confidence in the technology and 60 percent had an unfavorable opinion of it.

The survey underscored differences in opinion about whether touchscreen computers are ready to replace paper ballots in the polling places.

'That's a gigantic schism between the two groups,' said Larry Ponemon, chairman of the Ponemon Institute, which conducted the survey last month. 'That's the largest difference I've ever seen in a study.'

Touchscreen voting systems, also called direct electronic-recording systems, have gained popularity as states look for alternatives to flawed punch card machines that created problems in the 2000 presidential election. The Help America Vote Act has provided federal funding to help replace those machines, and a number of states are turning to DRE.

But some experts have raised concerns about the software development process, the security and reliability of the systems, and the lack of a paper audit trail for recounts of DRE balloting. California has decertified the machines for the November election and Missouri will require some form of paper audit trail.

Several Congressional hearings have been held on the subject and legislation requiring paper audit trails has been introduced in the House.

But nearly 80 percent of the public feel that e-voting machines are at least as likely to accurately record their votes as traditional paper ballot machines.

The survey reflects the responses of 3,798 people and was presented Saturday at the Defcon hackers' conference in Las Vegas. A group of 101 security professionals was surveyed at Defcon and at last week's Black Hat Briefings, also in Las Vegas.

The survey explored people's perceptions of the technology rather than the technology itself.

Ponemon cautioned that the expert group did not constitute a scientific sample. The results illustrate the differences in awareness of security and reliability issues.

The largest concerns for security professionals were system and programming errors and attempts to swing elections. The major concern of the general public was voter turnout. About 35 percent of those polled were afraid distrust of the e-voting systems could dissuade people from voting.

That might not be an idle concern. Although most of the public sample said they trust electronic voting machines, a significant minority expressed reservations. Twenty-five percent said they had little or no confidence in the machines.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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