Published on Friday, February 6, 2004 by The New York Times


Online Voting Canceled for Americans Overseas




Citing security concerns, the Department of Defense yesterday canceled plans to use an electronic voting system that would have allowed Americans overseas to cast votes over the Internet in this year's elections.


The system, the Secure Electronic Registration and Voting Experiment, or Serve, was developed with financing from the Defense Department.


The decision was announced in a memorandum from Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz to David S. C. Chu, under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness.


Paraphrasing the memorandum, a Department of Defense spokeswoman said: "The department has decided not to use Serve in the November 2004 elections. We made this decision in view of the inability to ensure legitimacy of votes, thereby bringing into doubt the integrity of the election results."


The memorandum says efforts will continue to find ways to cast ballots electronically for Americans overseas and to use Serve for testing and development.


The Defense Department move is a significant setback for proponents of various electronic voting initiatives. Efforts to move the nation beyond the problems with paper ballots and hanging chads in the 2000 presidential election include the increased use of touch-screen voting systems and experiments like Saturday's Democratic caucuses in Michigan, which will allow Internet voting.


But those initiatives come at a time of increased public distrust of high-tech voting. Critics of touchscreen voting machines, for example, argue that the technology creates a "black box" that allows no independent verification of votes unless a validation tool like a paper receipt system is used.


Serve was to be put into use in a few weeks by the Federal Voting Assistance Program, part of the Defense Department. Seven states initially signed up to participate, and up to 100,000 people were expected to use the system this year. The project, if successful, could have ultimately been expanded to serve a population of six million members of the military and their dependents, as well as other civilian voters overseas.


The decision to cancel the project, which was developed under a $22 million contract by Accenture, the consulting and technology services company, was announced two weeks after members of a panel of scientists who were asked by the government to assess the project's security recommended that it be canceled because any system based on off-the-shelf personal computers and run over today's Internet was inherently insecure.


Aviel D. Rubin, an author of that report and technical director of the Information Security Institute at Johns Hopkins University, said, "While we appreciate their efforts to allow this segment of the population to have more accessible voting, we applaud their decision to cancel this project because of the security concerns."


Barbara Simons, a technology consultant and co-author of the report, said the project was a noble idea that could not be carried out securely using today's technology. "Unfortunately, we will not be able to use the Internet for such a system unless and until voters' PC's and the Internet itself are made secure," she said.


The Internet voting report said the Serve system had "fundamental security problems that leave it vulnerable to a variety of well-known cyberattacks, any one of which could be catastrophic."


The case for voting over the Internet seems logical to Americans who have come to entrust their computers and the Internet with their purchases, their personal information and even their love lives. But casting a vote online is different from buying a book or a pair of hedge clippers, the report said.


The Trojan horses, viruses and hacking attacks that have become a frustrating part of daily life, and which allow crimes like online snooping and identity theft, could allow hackers to disrupt or even alter the course of elections, the report concluded. A major American election would be an irresistible target for hackers, and the ability of computers to automate tasks means that many attacks could be carried out on a large scale, the report added.


Such attacks "could have a devastating effect on public confidence in elections," according to the report, and so "The best course to take is not to field the Serve system at all."


When the security report came out last month, the Defense Department initially tried to play down the severity of the criticism. "The Department of Defense stands by the Serve program," the spokesman, Glenn Flood, said. "We feel it's right on, at this point, and we're going to use it."


The report was initially dismissed by both the Pentagon and Accenture as a "minority report" because it was written by only 4 of the 10 experts who reviewed the system. Mr. Rubin noted that the four authors were the only ones who attended the two three-day briefings on the system. There is no majority report because the other experts did not write their views. But some other members of the panel said they disagreed with the conclusion.


The news apparently caught officials at Accenture by surprise. When asked about the cancellation yesterday afternoon via instant messaging, a spokesman for Accenture said that the program "has not been canceled" and then wrote, "this is news to me."


The spokesman later provided a statement from Meg T. McLaughlin, president of Accenture eDemocracy Services, which said that the decision to continue testing the Serve system will allow Accenture and the Federal Voting Assistance Program "to study Internet voting in ways that would not have been possible if the votes were being cast in an actual election."


"This is now an opportunity to demonstrate that the Internet is viable, valuable and secure enough to use for filing absentee ballots," Ms. McLaughlin said. "We are confident that sending absentee ballots via the Internet is just as secure and reliable as sending them by mail."


Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company



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