Why Internet voting remains a risky proposition

Voting in public elections via the Internet could be a national security risk, according to a researcher at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's Center for Applied Scientific Computing.

In a presentation titled "Intractable Security Risks of Internet Voting," computer scientist David Jefferson said the risks of electronic ballots cast via the Web far outweigh the conveniences such systems can offer. He presented his conclusions at a recent LLNL Computation Seminar Series, though his efforts in that area are independent of his work at the lab.

In addition to his research into high-performance computing applications at LLNL, he serves on a number of state and federal government panels that focus on election security issues, especially those related to electronic and Internet-based voting, and is on the board of directors of the California Voter Foundation.

"I am both a technical expert on this subject and an activist," Jefferson said in a March 9 statement on the work issued by LLNL. "Election security is an aspect of national security and must be treated as such."

In his presentation, Jefferson argued that Internet ballots demand more stringent security, privacy, reliability, availability and authentication than e-commerce transactions do. Those requirements cannot be satisfied by any Internet voting system available today or in the foreseeable future, he said, although 33 states allow or have experimented with some form of online voting.

He warned that Internet voting systems are vulnerable to anyone who can access them, from programmers and IT personnel to criminal syndicates and nation states.

Systems that require voters to cast ballots via email could also be easy prey for attackers. Among other vulnerabilities, email headers are easily forged, no end-to-end encryption or reliable authentication is available for messages, and they are subject to unpredictable delays. However, he said the worst vulnerability is that any IT person who controls a router, email relay or the server where the message ends up can modify the message.

Although Web-based systems in which voting transactions resemble e-commerce transactions are a bit better, he warned that they are still vulnerable to the security problems that plague the Web. Potential risks include client-side malware, server-side penetration, denial-of-service, voter authentication and various network attacks.

Jefferson said even the most sophisticated and secure Internet voting systems, which are still in the research phase, use end-to-end auditable cryptographic protocols whose inherent weaknesses include the inability to address remote voter authentication and client-side malware or prevent denial-of-service attacks.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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