A federally funded online absentee voting system
scheduled to debut in less than two weeks has security
vulnerabilities that could jeopardize voter privacy and
allow votes to be altered, according to a report prepared
by four prominent researchers invited to analyze the
system. All experts in cyber-security, they say the risks
associated with Internet voting cannot be eliminated and
urge that the system be shut down.
The report's authors are computer scientists Avi
Rubin, of Johns Hopkins; David Wagner, of the University of
California, Berkeley; David Jefferson, Lawrence Livermore
National Laboratory; and Barbara Simons, a leading
technology policy consultant. They are members of the
Security Peer Review Group, an advisory group formed by the
Federal Voting Assistance Program to evaluate the
Administrators of this program, part of the U.S.
Department of Defense, were charged with finding an easier
way for U.S. military personnel and overseas civilians to
vote in their home districts. Currently, these voters must
rely on absentee paper ballots. But obtaining and returning
paper ballots from a distant location can be a frustrating
process that sometimes depends on slow or unreliable
foreign postal services.
As an alternative, the federal program funded the
creation of an Internet-based voting system called the
Secure Electronic Registration and Voting Experiment, or
SERVE. The system is slated to be used in 50 counties in
seven states during this year's primary and general
elections, handling up to 100,000 votes. The first tryout
is scheduled Feb. 3 for South Carolina's presidential
primary. The eventual goal is to provide voting services to
all eligible overseas citizens, plus military personnel and
their dependents, a population estimated at 6 million.
While acknowledging the difficulties facing such
absentee voters, the authors of the security analysis
conclude that Internet voting presents far too many
opportunities for hackers or even terrorists to interfere
with fair and accurate voting, potentially in ways
impossible to detect. Such tampering could alter election
results, particularly in close contests.
"Because the danger of successful large-scale attacks
is so great, we reluctantly recommend shutting down the
development of SERVE and not attempting anything like it in
the future until both the Internet and the world's home
computer infrastructure have been fundamentally redesigned,
or some other unforeseen security breakthroughs appear,"
the report states.
The authors of the report state that there is no way
to plug the security vulnerabilities inherent in the SERVE
online voting design.
"The flaws are unsolvable because they are fundamental
to the architecture of the Internet," says Wagner,
assistant professor of computer science at Berkeley. "Using
a voting system based upon the Internet poses a serious and
unacceptable risk for election fraud. It is simply not
secure enough for something as serious as the election of a
The researchers say they also believe that if no
mishaps occur or are detected during this year's trial runs
with the online voting system, federal or state governments
might swiftly expand its use.
"The danger is that this system will work fine in a
low-stakes setting like these first trial runs," says
Rubin, technical director of the
Institute at Johns Hopkins and an associate professor
of computer science
in the Whiting School of
Engineering. "That will likely be used as an argument
for expanding the system for even wider use. But that's
like saying you don't ever need to wear a seat belt because
you drove to work without crashing the car this
The Internet voting plan, along with the growing use
of touchscreen equipment not linked to the Internet, is
part of a nationwide move toward greater use of computers,
provoked in part by the problems associated with paper
ballots during the 2000 presidential election. But the
authors of the SERVE analysis conclude that opportunities
for tampering are being overlooked in the rush to embrace
new election technology.
"The SERVE system has all of the problems that
electronic touchscreen voting systems have: secret
software, no protection against insider fraud and lack of
voter verifiability," Jefferson says. "But it also has a
host of additional security vulnerabilities associated with
the PC and the Internet, including denial-of-service
attacks, automated vote buying and selling, spoofing
attacks and virus attacks."
As currently implemented, certain members of the U.S.
Armed Forces, the Merchant Marines, the Public Health
Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration, as well as U.S. citizens living abroad, are
eligible to vote using SERVE. Such voters can go to the
SERVE Web site using a Windows-based computer connected to
the Internet and cast their ballots.
After studying the prototype system, however, the four
researchers said it would be too easy for a hacker, located
anywhere in the world, to disrupt an election or influence
its outcome by employing any of several common types of
A denial-of-service attack, which
would delay or prevent a voter from casting a ballot
through the SERVE Web site.
A "man in the middle" or
"spoofing" attack, in which a hacker would insert a phony
Web page between the voter and the authentic server to
prevent the vote from being counted or to alter the voter's
choice. What is particularly problematic, the authors say,
is that victims of "spoofing" may never know that their
votes were not counted.
Use of a virus or other malicious
software on the voter's computer to allow an outside party
to monitor or modify a voter's choices. The malicious
software might then erase itself and never be detected.
"Voting in a national election will be conducted using
proprietary software, insecure clients and an insecure
network," says Simons, a former IBM Research staff member
and a past president of the Association for Computing
Machinery. "Congress and the Department of Defense should
understand that providing soldiers with an insecure system
on which to vote is not doing them any favors."
Last year, Rubin helped fuel a nationwide debate
regarding the increasing use of computerized voting
machines that are not linked to the Internet. He and three
other researchers released a report indicating that
software used in a popular electronic voting system had
serious security flaws.
The full security analysis of the SERVE system can be
viewed online at
For detailed information about the SERVE system,
including a list of participating states and counties, go