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The Grill: Avi Rubin

The e-voting critic talks about the inherent weakness of software, the critical need for audit trails and the 'perfect storm' of the 2000 election.

By Todd R. Weiss
August 18, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - For more than a decade, Avi Rubin has been a vocal critic of e-voting systems across the nation. In 2006, he wrote Brave New Ballot: The Battle to Safeguard Democracy in the Age of Electronic Voting, which heavily criticized e-voting machines for security and reliability shortcomings.

How do you think e-voting went this primary election season? You can run an election and say that it appears to have gone fine, but we don't really know.

E-voting advocates and vendors say that security concerns are the stuff of conspiracy theorists. I would ask those people if they would be willing to allow their bank accounts to be unauditable. And if they would give up on getting any confirmation of their ATM transactions.


Name: Aviel "Avi" Rubin
Title: Professor of computer science; technical director, Johns Hopkins University Information Security Institute
Organization: Johns Hopkins University
Location: Baltimore
Something people may not know about him: He's president of Independent Security Evaluators LLC, which helps corporations find and fix internal security problems. He has a policy of not working with e-voting businesses.

Hobbies: Soccer, tennis, golf and photography
Passion: Sailing; he just bought his first boat, a 40-foot sloop.
Last book read: Man's Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl

We need to have a system [we can] audit to be sure that the machines got the right result. People who have a lot of experience with computers and security know that it's not always a good idea to trust the machines.

Are there systems today that you would be comfortable with? Definitely. I've seen designs of voting systems that I'd be happy with. I don't think anything is totally secure. Ultimately, I think the goal is to do the best we can.

What needs to be done differently? The National Institute of Standards and Technology identified what I think is a breakthrough property in an e-voting machine, which is the idea of making it software-independent. That means a software failure does not have any possible impact on the accuracy and integrity of the election.

How would that work? Voters use a touch screen to make their selections, and the machine prints a paper ballot that has all the choices that they made. If the software on that system fails, they wouldn't get a printed ballot that they could approve. The voter then takes the printed ballot and puts it into a scanner. The scanner tallies the ballots.

After the election, you pick a bunch of scanners randomly and audit them. You compare the totals. In any stage of the process, a flaw in the software will prevent you from proceeding.

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