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Internet voting systems too insecure, researcher warns

Says election officials should ditch 'Net voting for this year's general elections

March 1, 2012 12:13 PM ET

Computerworld - SAN FRANCISCO -- Internet voting systems are inherently insecure and should not be allowed in the upcoming general elections, a noted security researcher said at the RSA Conference 2012 being held here this week.

David Jefferson, a computer scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories and chairman of the election watchdog group Verified Voting, called on election officials around the country to drop plans to allow an estimated 3.5 million voters to cast their ballots over the Internet in this year's general elections.

In an interview with Computerworld on Wednesday, Jefferson warned that the systems that enable such voting are far too insecure to be trusted and should be jettisoned altogether.

Jefferson is scheduled to participate in a panel discussion on the topic at the RSA conference on Thursday. Also on the panel are noted cryptographer and security guru Ron Rivest, who is the "R" in RSA, and Alex Halderman, an academic whose research on security vulnerabilities in e-voting systems prompted elections officials in Washington to drop plans to use an e-voting system in 2010.

"There's a wave of interest across the country, mostly among election officials and one agency of the [Department of Defense], to offer Internet voting" to overseas citizens and members of the military, Jefferson said. "From a security point of view, it is an insane thing to do."

A total of 33 states allow citizens to use the Internet to cast their ballots. In a majority of cases, those eligible to vote over the Internet receive their blank ballots over the Web, fill them in and submit their ballots via email as a PDF attachment. Some states, such as Arizona, have begun piloting projects that allow eligible voters to log in to a web portal, authenticate themselves and submit their ballots via the portal.

The insecurity and the inability to audit such voting practices are unacceptable, Jefferson said.

Ballots sent via email, for instance, are transmitted in the clear without encryption. That means any entity, such as an ISP or a malicious hacker that sits between the voter and the county where the vote is being cast, can view, filter, substitute or modify the ballot, he said.

Meanwhile, the e-voting Web portals that have been proposed for use in Arizona and are being tested in other states are prone to all the security vulnerabilities and attacks that other sites face, he said.

As one example, he pointed to a 2010 attack crafted by Halderman, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Michigan, against a Digital Vote by Mail System that was proposed for use in Washington. The system was designed to be used by overseas voters and military personnel based in other countries.

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