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UK e-voting pilots deeply flawed

Security expert speaks out

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A leading British academic has warned of the shortcomings of electronic voting schemes tried at this year's local elections.

The criticism, from Dr Ben Fairweather, Research Fellow at De Montfort University's Centre for Computing and Social Responsibility, comes in advance of the publication of the Electoral Commission's evaluation of the pilot schemes due later today.

Last May saw the country's largest ever trial of e-voting. In English local elections over 1.5 million people in 18 local council areas were able to take part in voting trials by text message, Internet, electronic kiosk and, for the first time ever, digital TV.

Dr Fairweather said: "I have seen most, if not all of the pilot schemes demonstrated, and have spotted substantial flaws with some of them, including one system which violated its own security model."

He said the system used in Shrewsbury and Kerrier, Cornwall adopted a CESG security model that called for candidate codes to be sent to voters by post, as a security precaution. But people could request this information online on the day in violation of this security policy.

In Sheffield matters were worse. Many polling stations were without an Internet connection on polling day. As a result voters could get a vote at a poling station while still being able to vote again online from home.

Dr Fairweather said it might be possible to implement e-voting from a secure location, like a polling station but he suggested secure and anonymous voting from home remains fraught with problems. As analogue TV transmissions are phased out, digital TV places a means to vote electronically in more homes. But that doesn't solve all the problems in voting from home.

"For one thing how do you know who's in the room with someone when they vote and how can you be sure they are not trying to influence someone's vote?" he asked.

Dr Fairweather urged the government to go slow on plans to introduce e-voting and to take the concerns of security experts and academics on board. For example, the government should use open source systems (which are open to inspection) for e-voting, not the closed systems currently in vogue.

He suggested the government's stated goal of offering e-voting for the general election after next (which will probably take place around 2009/2010) was probably unrealistic.

"This target assumes smooth progress with early pilots, which hasn't been met. Also a general election is such a high profile target for hackers - so the risks are severe," Dr Fairweather argued.

Dr Fairweather reserves some of his harshest criticisms for voting by text message.

"There are really serious worries about SMS voting. Operators can disgard text messages if their systems are busy. Also people are obliged to key in long sequences to vote by text."

"It's a pale imitation of a cross on a piece of paper. Electronic voting in general has not reached maturity," he added.

Dr Fairweather's response to the Government consultation on electronic democracy can be seen here. His response to the associated Government report on e-voting security can be found here.

Major problems with e-voting

Dr Fairweather's criticism echo those made by think tank the Foundation for Information Policy Research (FIPR) on polling day.

It warned that voting systems such as those being trialled in May's local government elections could lead to major problems and undermine public confidence in the electoral process. In particular, the FIPR was concerned about the lack of a paper audit trail that could be verified by voters and later by election scrutinisers.

Technical glitches on the big day

Most of the problems on polling day centred on getting the technology to work in the first place.

In St Albans, for example, the technology on trial went on the blink, with local papers reporting that confusion was such that it almost led to the vote being declared null and void.

The problem centred on the Presiding Officers' PCs, which are designed to check the electoral roll as voters entered the polling station. As a result, voters were forced to resort to traditional methods of voting - a piece of paper and a crayon.

A question of accessibility

One of the main benefits cited by the government in support of e-voting is accessibility. Make voting more accessible, the thinking goes, and more citizens will vote.

As far from everyone has a computer, the government extols the use of public accessibility terminals in libraries for voting.

Which is ironic when a lot of the problem for government in getting shiftless bastards (AKA the electorate) to vote right now is getting them to go down to polling stations in, er, libraries. ®

Related Stories

Fraud potential found in e-voting systems
FIPR highlights e-voting risks
E-voting could cure voter apathy
E-voting: another UK Government gimmick?
Govt unveils plans for eDemocracy

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