Last month, the District conducted an Internet voting experiment that resulted in a team from the University of Michigan infiltrating election computers so completely that they were able to modify every ballot cast and all election outcomes without ever leaving their offices. They also retrieved the username and password for every eligible overseas voter who had signed up to participate. The team even defended the system against attackers from China and Iran. More than any other event in recent years, this test illustrates the extreme national security danger of Internet voting.
Though the District’s Board of Elections and Ethics prudently dropped the plan to use the most dangerous parts of the system in Tuesday’s midterms, the board still claims Internet voting is the wave of the future. By contrast, the consensus of the computer security community is that there is no secure Internet voting architecture suitable for public elections. The transmission of voted ballots over the Internet, whether by Web, e-mail or other means, threatens the integrity of the election. Simply fixing the problems identified in the District’s test will not prove the system secure. Almost certainly the next test will discover new vulnerabilities yielding a similar disastrous result.
People frequently ask: If we can bank online, why can’t we vote online? The answer is that because every banking transaction must be associated with a customer, banks know what their customers are doing, and customers get monthly statements that can be used to detect unauthorized transactions. There is no banking equivalent of the requirement for a secret ballot untraceable to the voter. While banks have huge budgets for mitigating security problems, they still lose substantial sums due to online fraud. In addition, while banks may tolerate the costs of online theft, because they save money overall, elections cannot tolerate a “small” amount of vote theft. For more than a decade, computer security scientists have been warning of certain core dangers related to Internet voting. The successful Michigan incursion confirmed many of them.