A decade and a half into the Web revolution, we do much of our banking and shopping online. So why can’t we vote over the Internet? The answer is that voting presents specific kinds of very hard problems. Even though some countries do it and there have been trial runs in some precincts in the United States, computer security experts at a Princeton symposium last week made clear that online voting cannot be verifiably secure, and invites disaster in a close, contentious race. “Vendors may come and they may say they’ve solved the Internet voting problem for you, but I think that, by and large, they are misleading you, and misleading themselves as well,” Ron Rivest, the MIT computer scientist and cryptography pioneer, said at the symposium. “If they’ve really solved the Internet security and cybersecurity problem, what are they doing implementing voting systems? They should be working with the Department of Defense or financial industry. These are not solved problems there.”
The unsolved problems include the ability of malicious actors to intercept Internet communications, log in as someone else, and hack into servers to rewrite or corrupt code. While these are also big problems in e-ecommerce, if a hacker steals money, the theft can soon be discovered. A bank or store can decide whether any losses are an acceptable cost of doing business. Voting is a different and harder problem. Lost votes aren’t acceptable. And a voting system is supposed to protect the anonymity of a person’s vote—quite unlike a banking or e-commerce transaction—while at the same time validating that it was cast accurately, in a manner that maintains records that a losing candidate will accept as valid and verified.
Given the well-understood vulnerabilities of networked computer systems, the problem is far from solved, says David Dill, a Stanford computer scientist. “Basically, it relies on the user’s computer being trustworthy. If a virus can intercept a vote at keyboard or screen, there is basically no defense,” Dill says. “There are really fundamental problems. Perhaps a system could be tightened so some particular hack won’t work. But overall, systems tend to be vulnerable.”
… Alex Halderman, a computer scientist at the University of Michigan, and two grad students accepted that offer—and soon found an error in the source code that “allowed us to completely steal the election,” Halderman said at the Princeton symposium. They were even able to change the choice of candidates that appeared on people’s screens.
Rivest put the matter in plain terms. “I think when we talk about voting over the Internet, my gut reaction says: Why vote over the Internet? Why? Why are you doing this? Why? Really, why? Why? I think you need to ask that question a lot, just like a two-year-old,” he said. “There are other approaches to getting information back and forth that are better, and have better security properties. Voting over the Internet is rarely going to be the best choice. It’s very complicated, and you are asking for trouble. Would you connect your toaster to a high-tension power line? Putting a voting system online is very much like that. Would you invest your pension in credit default swaps? You want to stay away [from] complexity. You want something simple. You are entering a world of attacks and risk that you don’t want to be in.”