Don't trust computers with e-votes, warns expert
Stuart Millar, technology correspondent
Thursday October 17, 2002
A world experts in electronic voting will today warn the government that trusting computers with the democratic process is a recipe for fraud and error.
Rebecca Mercuri is assistant professor of computer science at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, who has given evidence to the US Congress. She is meeting the Cabinet Office in London today, and will urge reconsideration of alternatives to crosses on ballot papers, such as internet and text-message voting, because their results cannot be guaranteed to be secure and accurate.
She told the Guardian yesterday: "E-voting systems actually provide less accountability, poorer reliability and greater opportunity for fraud than traditional methods.
"People assume that electronic voting is just the same as other technologies we use in everyday life, like banking or airline ticketing, but there are crucial differences.
"With all these other systems there is a physical data trail, bits of paper that allow us to check that the transactions are accurate. E-voting offers none of these safeguards."
Ms Mercuri warns that no e-voting system exists that meets these tests.
Her intervention comes as support for e-voting in this country gathers momentum. In a bid to reverse voter apathy, internet and text-message voting were tried in some areas at local elections in May, and councils have already been invited by the government to bid to run "innovative voting pilots" at next May's local polls.
Ms Mercuri's primary concern is that with fully electronic systems there is no way voters can verify that the ballot they cast corresponds to the one that is recorded, transmitted, and counted by the machine, without jeopardising the anonymity of their ballot.
"Any first-year computing student can write code that displays one thing on the screen to the voter but records something else and transmits that as the vote," she said.
Internet and text-message voting are even less reliable, she added. "I am horrified that anybody would even consider using the internet as a medium for conducting elections, because it is so insecure. Websites can be spoofed, identities can be stolen and the whole thing is open to international attack. "Without using biometric techniques like iris or fingerprints, there is no way of establishing online that the person voting is who they say they are."
Ms Mercuri, who will deliver her findings in a lecture tonight at the Royal Academy of Engineering organised by an internet thinktank, the Foundation for Information Policy Research, believes the only way to resolve these problems is to design an electronic system which produces a paper record of the ballot that can be verified by the voter before it automatically drops into the system. This paper record will be available for checking if anything goes wrong.
A Cabinet Office spokeswoman said that any decisions on electronic voting would be made after the government had completed its e-democracy consultation process, due to end this month.