Canada’s Liberal party elected a new leader last week. And for the first time in the party’s history, the voting took place online. Justin Trudeau, the telegenic son of the late Pierre Trudeau, Canada’s most famous prime minister, won in a landslide with over 80 per cent of the vote. But online voting critics say that despite the decisive results, the Internet remains an unsafe place to cast your vote. “If the Conservative party want to select the next Liberal party leader, this provides them with the perfect opportunity,” says Dr. Barbara Simons, an online voting expert, and co-author (with Douglas Jones) of Broken Ballots: Will Your Vote Count? “I am not saying the Conservatives would do this — I’m just saying this is a very foolish and irresponsible thing for Liberals to be doing, because they open themselves up to vote-rigging that would be almost untraceable, and impossible to prove.”
Simons is one of several experts who have issues with online voting security. Others include University of Ottawa law professor and Internet guru Professor Michael Geist and Princeton University researcher Jeremy Epstein. Online voting does have its defenders, for example Carnegie Mellon University’s Michael Shamos, but online voting opponents argue it’s impossible to create a system immune to third-party attacks.
Simons draws parallels between the risks involved in voting and banking online. She points to viruses like ZeuS (“It’s my favorite virus, because it is incredibly smart,”) which has been used by criminals to steal millions of dollars from online bank accounts, leaving its victims none the wiser.
“I think many people feel that what they see on their screen is what goes out on the Internet,” says Simons. “They don’t appreciate the fact that these are different components, and there is software in between that can change the results – they can vote for candidate A, and a virus can change their vote to candidate B, and they wouldn’t know.”