Voting online still too vulnerable

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By Ben Muir
MI First Election

Launching a campaign that would allow voters to cast ballots online is a convenient and simple thought. But considering the idiosyncrasies of each person’s vote, the inability to verify each online voter, and lack of security, an online election is too much of a threat to democracy, experts say.

The technology of the 21st century has made it so virtually any daily chore can be completed from a desktop, tablet or smartphone. Marie Wicks is the East Lansing City Clerk, Freedom of Information Act Coordinator, and proponent of voting online.  Wicks said an online election would expand political reach and inspire youth.

“That’s what students want. That’s what most local officials want,” Wicks said. “We can do so many things from the comfort of our own home, we can shop and we can even bank.”

Wicks’ argument is one that has sparked a widespread debate over the possibility of implementing an online election. Wicks explained her concern with traditional polling, and the shoddy, outdated equipment presently used by her office.

“We upload results onto a machine. A very, very old computer,” Wicks says as she mimics the piercing screech the computer makes. “It’s pretty scary that we do it that way.”

Wicks conceded that in the web era we live in now, an online election is infeasible.  

“There’s just not enough security to be able to vote online at this point,” Wicks said. “Somebody could be able to hack into voting, and change the outcome of elections.”

Dr. Richard Enbody is an engineering professor at Michigan State University who has researched computer security for 14 years. Enbody says it wouldn’t be difficult to bring down an online election by using denial of service a cyber attack that interrupts or suspends connection to the Internet.

These attacks often cripple users’ access to email, websites or bank accounts. Common attacks involve flooding a network with information, eventually making it impossible for servers to process requests, according to a report by the Department of Homeland Security.

“Denial of service is a very easy attack to do, and a very hard attack to defend against,” Enbody said. “I could sit in Russia, and bring the whole thing down.”

Wicks seemed perplexed that complex transactions like depositing, withdrawing or sending funds is available online but voting is not.

“My position is: If we feel secure about doing our monetary functions online, why can’t we vote online?” Wicks said.

John Dowell, a technology literacy specialist with MSU, says online banking is under constant cyber attack, and fraudulent people are getting away with billions of dollars. Financial institutions hide it from the public to retain customers, Dowell said.

“There are potentially thousands of points of failure for any given voting submission,” Dowell said.

Enbody explained the misconception of comparing web-based finances and voting. He stressed that dollars are replaceable, votes are not.

“If I took a dollar from you, and traded it for a dollar of mine, it wouldn’t matter,” Enbody said. “However, you wouldn’t trade your vote for my vote. Your vote today might be different from your vote tomorrow, whereas the dollar bill is the same always.”

There are tremendous losses in the online financial system every day, Enbody says. Losses that stem from billions of dollars in online fraud, are eventually replaced when financial institutions charge interest, higher loan rates, insurance and service fees.

Conversely, if an online voting system were introduced, emulating e-commerce principles, a vast number of votes would be lost and never replaced. Enbody deduced that votes are incomparable to financial transactions.

“The fact that there is huge online financial losses is something that, in our day-to-day business, we’re not aware of,” Enbody said. “Nobody could take votes, however, and replace them with other votes because they’re personal.”

With no way to police it, and minimal strategies for proper verification, online voting has no future. Alaina Kastl, a 20-year-old Michigan State student and first-time voter, sees the flaws of online voting.

Internet Dog

“The only way for people to vote online is if there is proof of identification,” Kastl said. Voting online “would be more convenient. But people who don’t take the time to register, are not of age, or try to vote more than once shouldn’t be voting online. It’s nearly impossible.”

To make online voting practicable, Enbody says the Internet would have to change completely. A change that would take away the Internet’s most valuable attribute: Anonymity.

Users construct bank accounts, find love, gamble, reshape wardrobes, and coordinate mortgages without consulting another human. Enbody says trading those luxuries for online voting is unlikely.

“Could we build a system? Yeah, we make it so nothing is anonymous anymore, and that’s just not going to happen.” Enbody said. “The Internet was built by a bunch of hippies.”