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Security issues threaten to derail the rise of tablet voting

by Doug Drinkwater

November 5 2012

Tomorrow’s electorate will be Internet experts, and accustomed to using smartphones and tablets on a daily basis. So could this see a gradual move towards voting via mobile devices?

Despite the relative youth of smartphones and newness of tablets, mobile devices are increasingly having a bearing on electoral proceedings.

On the campaign trail ahead of his first term, U.S. president Barack Obama used mobile apps to pull in new followers, while both Obama and Mitt Romney have launched iOS applications for promoting news and policies in the lead-up to the November 6 election.

In fact, technology and politics have become more entwined than ever before over the last year. Obama recently took to Reddit to answer questions from the public, both Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron use iPads on a frequent basis, while Apple’s tablet has even found itself being used for voting across the globe (more on that shortly).

Google, too, has got involved with its new online Voter Information Tool allowing voters to find out where they can vote plus information on the candidates.

While all of this technology may help politicians look ‘cool’ to younger voters, a bigger question remains; Can technology, and mobile devices like the tablet in particular, one day transform how we vote?

Online and mobile voting is in fashion

A recent study suggests that interest is there in mobile voting. A poll by Stitcher found that 60% of mobile and tablet owners would vote on a mobile ballot if they could, with this interest at its highest among 18-34 year olds and tilting slightly in favor of Democrats (54% versus 47% for Republicans).

Clearly, there could be many advantages to using mobile devices. Voters could take part from their own home, there would be no confusion or loss over ballot papers, and there should be less confusion over vague paper markings.

In fact, the first steps to mobile voting have already been taken, with Internet voting now commonplace in certain areas around the world.

Baltic state Estonia has been voting online for four years, while tablets are being used by disabled voters in Oregon. Victoria, a state in Australia, also plans to use tablets for voting at its next state election

More recently, San Francisco mayor Ed Lee and Facebook investor Ron Conway registered city voters by using Apple’s iPad, and California has now adopted online voter registration. One company (Sctyl), which specializes in electoral computer systems, has even started developing a tablet voting system.

But security concerns will apply the brakes

However, for all the enthusiasm over online or mobile-based voting, experts have been sounding the alarm. For online voting, let alone tablet voting, comes with many pitfalls, according to one cyber security expert.

“Tablet computers can certainly be outfitted with apps that enable the casting of votes via the Internet,” says Dr. Rebecca Mercuri, president of Notable Software.

“In fact, any tablet computers that can access the Internet can also access voting web pages already, such as for casting ballots in stock shareholder elections or for organizational leaderships.

“But such applications are not secure, since there typically is no way to verify if the app is authorized or a rogue version that collects passwords (as a false front-end) and then logs in as if they were the user and casts votes differently from how the user would have intended.

“We know that breaches of supposedly secure on-line information, such as credit card and banking data, are commonplace, as is electronic identity theft.

“But unlike these situations, where a user can request that the bank or credit card entity put a hold on charges or financial transfers that they did not make, there is no way to put a hold on one's votes. In fact, because voting in public elections is required to be anonymous, there is no way to verify the authenticity of the selections.

Mercuri says that these issues, as well as the possible unfairness of online voting not being accessible to those in areas with poor wireless connectivity, will put a hold on any such plans for online and especially mobile voting.

“It is for these reasons that I, and many computer scientists, have expressed strong opposition to the use of any form of online voting, including the use of tablets, for public elections.

“As it happens, the problems that I have described are insurmountable and new computer-based technologies will not only increase the difficulty of validating that ballots have been cast, recorded, and counted correctly, but will also open vast opportunities for fraud to rogues from all corners of the planet. Tablet voting thus represents a foolhardy situation that masquerades as a simple but erroneous solution to the very complex problem of election administration.

Mercuri is by no means the first computer scientist to bring such fears to light. Bob Carey of the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) recently said that it is “premature to deploy Internet voting in real elections at this time”, although his firm’s acting director suggested that the group is not against such plans going forward.

"FVAP does not advocate for or against Internet voting (online, electronic return of a marked ballot),” Pam Mitchell told TabTimes. "FVAP is currently working to make it easier for overseas Americans and those in the military to register to vote online and to download their ballots."

So the Internet and mobile devices may have to wait before they play a truly significant part in deciding future world leaders, but don’t be surprised, particularly if security issues can be addressed, if that time is coming sooner rather than later.

Doug Drinkwater is the International Editor of TabTimes and is based in London, England.

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