Online voting: a psychological, not technological challenge

The past two weeks of Australia’s political history may yet prove to be a spur toward electronic voting but several barriers stand in the way of a nation-wide adoption of e-voting, according to Symantec’s chief technology officer, Mark Bregman.

Speaking to Computerworld Australia, Bregman said the primary challenge to the introduction of e-voting was that the public typically held a higher standard for information security in the digital world than in the physical world.

“Take the example of using your credit card – there are many people who are too afraid to use their credit card online… the reality is that you are sending out a 16 digit number in a sea of billions of other digits. So the likelihood someone will snatch it out of the air is very small,” he said.

“However those same people will very happily give their credit card to a clerk in a restaurant who they have never met and who they will never see again and who walks away with it to a back room for ten minutes. They feel comfortable about that physical world transaction but not about the cyberspace one.”

The chief reason for this, Bregman said, was the easy scalability of crime in cyberspace when compared to manually copying down credit card numbers in the physical world.

“When you get to voting it is similar. People are worried that is there some way that en mass someone could go in and alter votes. That is a concern, but there are technologies that can address that,” he said.

“What is portrayed as a concern, but is frankly less of a concern, is that individual votes will somehow get captured and be modified along the way.”

Further, Bregman said the previous US election result which hinged on the fault-prone, manual “hanging chad” for an outcome was evidence that the public would rather stick with manual election methods than move to less fault-prone electronic methods.

“There is a technology which has been around in the US electoral system for 100 years, but it doesn’t work,” he said. “Yet everyone is comfortable with that verse a digital technology, which will certainly have flaws, but which arguably will be better.

“The psychology is ‘I don’t understand the digital, it is complex’, so it will be delayed.”

In Bregman’s view, e-voting was unlikely to be rolled out by the next federal election, but it would become a reality “much quicker than we expect.”

ISP Data Retention

Bregman was also critical of the Federal Attorney General’s plan to introduce mandatory ISP data retention laws, arguing that the practice of storing user browsing data to help combat cybercrime and terrorism sounded good in theory but stumbled in the practice.

“One of the challenges is with any kind of regulation like that is that it sounds good until you spend five minutes doing the math and you figure how much data that is,” he said.

“Depending on how long you retain it, you either have even more data which makes it hard to find, or by the time you go look for it, you may not find it. So I don’t think it is very practical.

“It is the kind of thing that on the face of it sounds like a reasonable idea but when you actually try to work through scenario – how would you use it? – it very quickly looks a lot less practical.”

As reported by Computerworld Australia the national manager of the Australian Federal Police’s (AFP) High Tech Crime Operations and Assistant Commissioner, Neil Gaughan, has argued that the regime would have little effect on how the AFP curbed crime.


Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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