For the past several years various groups and organizations have been debating, proposing legislation for, and running pilot projects using the Internet to vote. Why? A big motivator is to increase access. American citizens living overseas (civilian, military, government employees) often want to vote but if they have to rely on the postal services of several countries for ballot requests and return, or if they have to travel great distances to get to an approved polling place it can be a significant burden. State and county agencies in this country wonder if they can improve reliability and efficiency while reducing costs by implementing online voting. Given the current fiscal situation in this country that is a huge motivator. The problems of access, reliability and budgetary pressures just scream for consideration of a computing based solution. Maybe it will work, maybe it won't, but if it is going to happen it is going to be computer scientists who make it so (A Captain Picard reference in case you didn't pick up on it).
There are pros and cons and this is where opinions run hot. Let's take just one example: the need to guarantee the security and privacy of such sensitive data if it is sent over the Internet.
Why is a "guarantee" of correctness on the Internet so difficult? As many of you know, the Internet was originally designed by the US Department of Defense for use by a select number of trusted sites for the purpose of guaranteeing communications in the event of a national emergency such as a nuclear attack. Therefore, redundancy of data was the primary concern, not security of data. If Washington DC was attacked, multiple copies of sensitive data would be accessible in repositories across the country. This legacy lives on today, as the Internet has grown into a global network of diverse systems connected with everything from telephone lines to satellites, connecting state of the art computers and mobile devices to 25 year old legacy mainframes. As a result, it seems that we can communicate with almost anyone anywhere at anytime and because of built-in redundancy systems, data almost always gets through - unless someone intentionally interferes. And therein lies the problem. There will always be people who try to steal, or at least read and exploit, data that is not "theirs". Although not unique to electronic voting systems, the vulnerabilities of the Internet bring added attention to this old problem. We do *not* want anyone intercepting electronic ballots, or compromising a voting web site. How good is "good enough" when it comes to accountability and reliability?
How are these issues currently being tackled? I'm going to get technical for two paragraphs in order to provide a flavor of what computer scientists are currently doing in the realm of computer security for sensitive data.
If we can be successful, the payoffs are tangible: morally, ethically, fiscally. If we don't succeed the risks are serious: from disenfranchisement of citizens to interference with our democratic process in the worst case scenario.
What do we do? Move forward (how?), or sit it out and accept the current situation as good enough for now. What do you think?