E-voting experts call for revised security guidelines
'Black box that only a regulator can understand'
A federally funded group of voting system experts called on the United States' Election Assistance Commission, which oversees the nation's state-run elections, to revamp its recommended process for evaluating the security of electronic voting devices.
In comments published last week, the ten researchers that collectively make up A Center for Correct, Usable, Reliable, Auditable and Transparent Elections (ACCURATE) stated that current voting systems are not designed with security in mind and current testing procedures mistakenly focus on voting functionality, not system security. The center, funded by the National Science Foundation in August, released the comments on the last day of a public comment period held by the US Election Assistance Commission on its Voluntary Voting System Guidelines.
"There used to be no gap between the process of voting and people's understanding of voting," said Deirdre Mulligan, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley's School of Law and a member of the ACCURATE team. "Now, the advances of technology have taken a process that was meaningful and transparent and understood by everyone, and turned it into a black box that only a regulator can understand."
The comments are the last in a flood of nearly 1,000 submissions received by the EAC regarding guidelines for the creation and use of voting systems. While researchers and civil rights groups have voiced strong criticism of electronic voting technology - and in particular the systems' security - the national elections held in November 2004 saw only small problems that would not have impacted the outcome of the election.
However, trust remains a significant issue. Voting machine makers and the certification labs that have tested election systems have been secretive about the technology. And, while older machines and the method for counting votes tallied by the older technology were easily understood by the average voter, electronic voting systems have become more impenetrable and have not undergone significant and public testing, said Avi Rubin, a professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins University and the director of ACCURATE.
"We are focused on raising the technology level a little bit," Rubin said. "We don't even know, from a science perspective, that you can have a paperless voting machine be secure today."
The researchers at ACCURATE have recommended that the certification and testing of voting systems be public and transparent and that data be collected on election day so that systems may be better evaluated.
Transparency may become the major issue for voting machine makers in the year before midterm elections in November 2006.
Many system vendors have taken exception with calls from civil-right advocates and security researchers that they open their systems to inspection. Initially, vendors argued that opening up their systems would hurt their intellectual property. However, voting system makers now worry more that the indiscriminate release of code could allow frivolous claims of vulnerabilities in the technology.
"We do not believe that open, unrestricted publication to the Internet is in the public interest and this is not based on intellectual property issues," Neil McClure, vice president and strategic technology officer for e-voting system maker Hart InterCivic said in a statement. "We believe that open inspection must be controlled and managed to prevent reckless claims from being made against our system for the protection of the public and our customers."
However, other technologists argue that voting systems should be based on open source software in order to be completely transparent. The Open Voting Consortium has proposed such a system and is funding the creation of a model voting system based on open-source software.
"Both from a democracy perspective and a security perspective, I want the League of Women Voters or the ACLU or the Democratic party, the Republican party or whoever to be able to hire a programmer and get access to the code to audit it, and I want to be able to look at the conclusions that the auditor comes to," said David Mertz, chief technology officer for the Open Voting Consortium.
The Secretary of State for California has started to form a task force to study whether requiring that all voting system code be open-source software would increase the security and trust in elections. More than a year ago, the California legislature requested that the Secretary should "investigate and evaluate the use of open-source software in all voting machines in California" by January 1, 2006.
State government have focused on open-source software and open technical specifications in recent days as a way to promote transparency of digital information. Massachusetts, for example, has set regulations that require any electronic document format to adhere to three rules that prevent companies from claiming intellectual property rights on documents created in proprietary formats and ensure that documents can be read by a variety of programs.
"The reason why open source is attractive is because it is the ultimate in transparency," said ACCURATE's Mulligan, who is also director of the Samuelson Law, Technology and Public Policy Clinic at UC Berkeley. "We can't have a system where the technology is closed and we have to trust the vendors."
However, open-source software is not a panacea, ACCURATE's Rubin stressed. The code would have to be heavily audited and carefully maintained. Moreover, if any proprietary software were included in the system, then the total security of the system would suffer.
"If you don't have a malicious developer, then it probably does add some security," Rubin said. "But if the worry is that they could hide something in the code, then an attacker could hide in the closed-source part of the system."
The Election Assistance Commission gave no date by which the final draft of the guidelines would be released.
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