A group of experts has begun a campaign to expose unsafe electronic polling systems
COMPUTER security experts and MPs say that government plans to introduce electronic voting risk opening elections to fraud and malicious hacking.
As a practical means of countering voter apathy, the Government is backing large-scale trials of internet and telephone voting to prepare for its target of "an e-enabled general election some time after 2006".
Next month the Electoral Commission will announce where British voters will be able to choose their MEP electronically in June next year. But fears are growing about the security of the commercial "e-voting" systems being used, which fail to keep a record of votes cast by computer.
A group of technical, legal and political experts has begun a campaign to expose the use of unsafe electronic voting systems in Europe. Jason Kitcat, a programmer who helped to start the campaign, is concerned that voters' trust will be eroded as problems emerge with insecure voting systems, as has been happening in the United States.
With most e-voting companies refusing to make their software available for public testing, and no current system offering a printed record of votes cast, it will now be easier than ever to hack into an election, Mr Kitcat told The Times.
"You could have fraud on a scale never seen before, and it will be completely undetectable," he said. "What worries me is that by rushing in we 'll actually turn more young people off voting. Instead of thinking that their vote doesn't count, they will now be worrying that no one's going to be counting their vote."
Critics of electronic voting cite early problems in the US, where President Bush last year pledged $3.9 billion (£2.3 billion) to modernise the ballot.
Bev Harris, author of a book investigating electronic-voting companies, has catalogued what she alleges are electoral irregularities involving touch-screen and other computerised voting systems.
Last November, for instance, 6,300 votes changed overnight after an election in Alabama, handing the state's governorship to a Republican. At the same time three winning Republican candidates in elections in Texas all polled exactly 18,181 votes. Ms Harris, who suggests that the vote may have been compromised by a hacker, points out that an alphabetical conversion of 18,181 is "Ahaha".
Diebold Election Systems, a US company whose software has been used in Greater Manchester e-voting pilots, has faced particularly close scrutiny. This year its programming code - which it refuses to disclose - was found on an unprotected website and passed to computer scientists at Johns Hopkins University.
The scientists' analysis, published in July, found significant security flaws and said that a teenager could circumvent the system using equipment that can be bought for £70 over the internet.
Voters could cast unlimited votes without being detected by mechanisms within the voting terminal, they reported, and votes could be overwritten in the system's logs. Poll workers could give passwords to their friends and alter the terms of an election.
Diebold said the study was based on incomplete and outdated code, and made false assumptions about the electoral process - for instance, wrongly claiming that voting machines were connected to the internet. "We believe electronic voting is safe, secure and user-friendly," David Bear, a Diebold spokesman, said Rebecca Mercuri, one of the world's leading academics specialising in electronic voting systems, believes that Britain is making a huge mistake by turning to internet voting.
Dr Mercuri, a Pennsylvania-based computer security specialist, said: "Both the unauditable touch-screen machines being promoted in the US, and the internet voting systems being introduced in the UK . . . are not independently auditable. But internet voting is considerably worse, because it could encourage coercion and vote-selling, as it takes place outside of the precincts . . . I fear for democracy."
Pressure is growing in Parliament for the Government to suspend moves towards electronic voting until the public can be assured that it is safe. Bill Cash, the former Shadow Attorney-General, said that a "rushed and bungled" electronic vote next summer could create "a Florida-style 'hanging chad' debacle".
Tom Watson, a junior Treasury Minister, said: "Before we rush in, I want to make sure we get it right."
Richard Allan, the Liberal Democrats' technology spokesman, said: "The great thing about paper ballots is that you can verify them afterwards if a result is contested."
source: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/printFriendly/0,,1-2-894616,00.html 15nov03
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