Many of us use our computers and cell phones to bank and shop online. Why then do we not trust digital devices when voting?
This is what the BBC World Service’s Digital Planet radio program wondered in the context of the elections in the United States, where despite the advances of the digital age, most voters still use pencil and paper at the time to vote.
To analyze how safe is the technology used to vote in the US, the show’s hosts, engineer Gareth Mitchell and technology expert Bill Thompson, interviewed New York University professor Beatrice Atobatele.
Atobatele took an unusual measure to check the security of digital voting: bought a voting machine through the eBay online sales site.
The teacher, who is not an expert in technology, did it as a volunteer for a project called Election Cyber Surge (Electoral cybernetic wave), which seeks to guarantee cybersecurity during the electoral process.
The machine that Atobatele bought is one of the most common used in American elections.
“It began to be used in 2002,” he explained. “In these elections will be used in various estatus“he said, based on what he could find out.
“When it arrived I was surprised by its size. It was a small box that weighed less than 5 pounds (2.26 kilos),” he revealed.
Atobatele disarmed it and found a series of chips, which he proceeded to investigate with information you found online.
“Normally to use these machines one must have a card, which I did not have. But I managed to find a manual on the Internet and I learned how to enter the operating system directly,” he said.
For Thompson, the fact that Atobatele found so much information about this machine on the internet proves that “there is a community out there that is studying machines like this.”
“Every time someone discovers something new, they make the information available to the rest and thus people can quickly become expertslike Beatrice did, “he said.
According to the expert, this means that “once a vulnerability is discovered, everyone knows it”, so it cannot be guaranteed that this information will not be used maliciously during elections.
Atobatele found out that some of these machines have already been patched to resolve the vulnerabilities she discovered.
“But not all, and that is the problem,” he said.
However, the teacher marked as a good thing that the machines are independent of each other and they are not connected to the internet, something that reduces the chances of manipulation.
In addition to scrutinizing electronic voting machines, volunteers from Election Cyber Surge They also check that the electoral authorities have the antivirus software on their computers up to date and make recommendations on how to improve security.
Paper and pencil
But why if we manage so much of our lives using our smartphones and computers, is it so difficult to organize a digital voting system that is secure?
Digital Planet asked Susan Greenhalgh, an expert on election security who works for Free Speech for People (Freedom of Speech for the People), a non-profit, nonpartisan American organization that “fights for free and fair elections.”
“It is a very unique challenge to set up a secure online voting system that does not mimic the other activities we do, such as online banking or online e-commerce,” he explained.
“Because in the US, as in most countries, you have the promise and guarantee that your vote will be secret and first you have to be able validate your identity“.
“This is different from electronic commerce, where, for example, another person can buy something on Amazon using your credit card and the company does not check the identity of the person who pays, but only cares that the credit card used is approved” .
“But in order to vote I have to be able to be reliably identified and then I have to cast a vote that reaches another person who receives it online, but who You can’t know who I voted for and I can’t know if my vote was received“he continued.
“There is no mechanism to go back and audit, while I can review my Amazon account and credit card statement to check if someone bought something with my card and validate that there was no fraud.”
“Once you vote, you can’t go and ask: ‘Did you get my vote for this candidate?'” He exemplifies. “Just like they can’t come to ask you if that’s the person you voted for.”
Greenhalgh says that’s where the potential for elections to be hacked undetectable.
The expert points out that, despite the risks, more than 30 eStates in the US allow some type of online voting, especially for the military and voters abroad.
It is not the same
For his part, Thompson points out that “comparing electronic voting with commerce or electronic banking gives the false impression that it should be something simple, when it is not “.
“It makes people wonder: why don’t we do it? And a lot of proposals come up that aren’t effective.”
The expert highlights “another big problem” with electronic voting.
“The consequences of an election being hacked are very different from the consequences of a bank account hacking. Your money can be returned to you, but a choice has to produce a clear result that everyone trusts and they accept, “he says.
“If you discover that an election was undermined then democracy is undermined, which is much more serious. “
“That is why we cannot afford to skimp on security,” he concludes.
Atobatele adds: “If voters do not trust that their votes will be counted, they will no longer participate in the electoral process.” That, he says, would put the integrity of democracy at risk.
You can listen to the Digital Planet program (in English) here
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