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Electronic voting systems Can they hack it, or can they be hacked? The incredible advances of technology and computing in our society over the last few decades has touched every aspect of our lives, from schools to businesses, from controlling traffic lights on the streets to keeping our airplanes from going bump in the night. Technology has managed to make the little tasks of life easier, while making the big picture so much more complex than ever before.
We have sought to develop technology to improve and replace just about everything – email has taken over for the post office, blogs and webisodes are replacing television, and even books are more widely sold in electronic form.
Is it any real surprise that those engineers and programmers are working to replace the old paper ballots and punchcards of voting as well? Electronic voting systems are quite varied in style, construction, and capabilites. One of the more prevalent systems in use today is called Direct Recording Electronic.
DRE is an adaptation of the mechanical lever machines, and utilize a touch screen or pushbuttons for user interaction. An alphanumeric keypad is often available as well, allowing for write-in votes. In 1996, 7. 7% of the registered voters in the United States used some type of direct recording electronic voting system. (Bellis) Other forms of electronic voting machine range from commercial, off-the-shelf laptops with simple programs to proprietary equipment with advanced security and identification systems.
The biggest problem that most Americans have with all forms of electronic voting is that of security, of identification, and of accuracy and trustworthiness.
One of the most prevalent threats in the world today is that of electronic security – any computer connected to a network can be hacked, can be controlled and tampered with, producing whatever information is desired. The vulnerability to hacking is often cited as the key concern in implementing electronic voting systems in the USA. Some say that a closed system offers the perfect solution.
If there is no external communications pathway, then there is no risk of hacking, or gaining unauthorized entry into the tabulation system. Texas requires the use of closed systems. Most counties do not use modem transfer or only do so from substations, not directly from the polling place… It is possible to detect attempts to enter a modem line. Also, the Counting Station should still accept surrender and delivery of the physical medium and compare the tally and number of votes cast on the medium to the modemed results. (ProCon. org) Others argue that even these closed systems are vulnerable to attack.
Vendors and election jurisdictions generally state that they do not transmit election results from precincts via the Internet, but they may transmit them via a direct modem connection. However, even this approach may be subject to attack via the Internet, especially if encryption and verification are not sufficient. That is because telephone transmission systems are themselves increasingly connected to the Internet… and computers to which the receiving server may be connected, such as through a local area network (LAN), may have Internet connections.
In fact, organizations may be unaware of the extent of such connections. (ProCon. org) The security of our computing systems will always be a struggle to maintain. As quickly as we develop new ways to encrypt and decipher our data, hackers find away to unravel the systems. Many see it as a challenge, and seek to do no harm – simply defeating the ciphers is often enough. Regardless of the level of ill-intent, the simple fact that these systems have repeatedly proven unreliable is enough to stall their widespread implementation, at least in the USA. Even if we get the technology right, we still won’t be done.
If the goal of a voting system is to accurately translate voter intent into a final tally, the voting machine is only one part of the overall system. In the 2004 U. S. election, problems with voter registration, untrained poll workers, ballot design, and procedures for handling problems resulted in far more votes not being counted than problems with the technology. But if we’re going to spend money on new voting technology, it makes sense to spend it on technology that makes the problem easier instead of harder. (Schneier) Maybe we’ll won’t see reliable e-voting in our lifetime.
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