Alaska’s extension to its iVoting venture may have raised the interests of at least one journalist for one highly visible publication. When we were asked for our “take” on this form of iVoting, we thought that we should also comment here on this “northern exposed adventure.” (apologies to those fans of the mid-90s wacky TV series of a similar name.)
Alaska has been among the states that allow military and overseas voters to return marked absentee ballots digitally, starting with fax, then eMail, and then adding a web upload as a 3rd option. Focusing specifically on the web-upload option, the question was: “How is Alaska doing this, and how do their efforts square with common concerns about security, accessibility, Federal standards, testing, certification, and accreditation?”
In most cases, any voting system has to run that whole gauntlet through to accreditation by a state, in order for the voting system to be used in that state. To date, none of the iVoting products have even tried to run that gauntlet.
So, what Alaska is doing, with respect to security, certification, and host of other things is essentially: flying solo.
Their system has not gone through any certification program (State, Federal, or otherwise that we can tell); hasn’t been tested by an accredited voting system test lab; and nobody knows how it does or doesn’t meet federal requirements for security, accessibility, and other (voluntary) specifications and guidelines for voting systems.
In Alaska, they’ve “rolled their own” system. It’s their right as a State to do so.
In Alaska, military voters have several options, and only one of them is the ability to go to a web site, indicate their choices for vote, and have their votes recorded electronically — no actual paper ballot involved, no absentee ballot affidavit or signature needed. In contrast to the sign/scan/email method of return of absentee ballot and affidavit (used in Alaska and 20 other states), this is straight-up iVoting.
So what does their experience say about all the often-quoted challenges of iVoting? Well, of course in Alaska those challenges apply the same as anywhere else, and they are facing them all:
- insider threats;
- outsider hacking threats;
- physical security;
- personnel security; and
- data integrity (including that of the keys that underlie any use of cryptography)
In short, the Alaska iVoting solution faces all the challenges of digital banking and online commerce that every financial services industry titan and eCommerce giant spends big $ on every year (capital and expense), and yet still routinely suffer attacks and breaches.
Compared to the those technology titans of industry (Banking, Finance, Technology services, or even the Department of Defense), how well are Alaskan election administrators doing on their shoestring (by comparison) budget?
Good question. It’s not subject to annual review (like banks’ IT operations audit for SAS-70), so we don’t know. That also is their right as a U.S. state. However, the fact that we don’t know, does not debunk any of the common claims about these challenges. Rather, it simply says that in Alaska they took on the challenges (which are large) and the general public doesn’t know much about how they’re doing.
To get a feeling for risks involved, just consider one point, think about the handful of IT geeks who manage the iVoting servers where the votes are recorded and stored as bits on a disk. They are not election officials, and they are no more entitled to stick their hands into paper ballots boxes than anybody else outside a
county elections office. Yet, they have the ability (though not the authorization) to access those bits.
- Who are they?
- Does anybody really oversee their actions?
- Do they have remote access to the voting servers from anywhere on the planet?
- Using passwords that could be guessed?
- Who knows?
They’re probably competent responsible people, but we don’t know. Not knowing any of that, then every vote on those voting servers is actually a question mark — and that’s simply being intellectually honest.
Lastly, to get a feeling for the possible significance of this lack of knowledge, consider a situation in which Alaska’s electoral college votes swing an election, or where Alaska’s Senate race swings control of Congress (not far-fetched given Murkowski‘s close call back in 2010.)
When the margin of victory in Alaska, for an election result that effects the entire nation, is a low 4-digit number of votes, and the number of digital votes cast is similar, what does that mean?
It’s quite possible that those many digital votes could be cast in the next Alaska Senate race. If the contest is that close again, think about the scrutiny those IT folks will get. Will they be evaluated any better than every banking data center investigated after a data breach? Any better than Target? Any better than Google or Adobe’s IT management after having trade secrets stolen? Or any better than the operators of military unclassified systems that for years were penetrated through intrusion from hackers located in China who may likely have been supported by the Chinese Army or Intelligence groups?
Instead, they’ll be lucky (we hope) like the Estonian iVoting administrators, when the OCSE visited back in 2011 to have a look at the Estonian system. Things didn’t go so well. OCSE found that one guy could have undermined the whole system. Good news: it didn’t happen. Cold comfort: that one guy didn’t seem to have the opportunity — most likely because he and his colleagues were busier than a one-armed paper hanger during the election, worrying about Russian hackers attacking again, after they had previously shut-down the whole country’s Internet-connect government systems.
But so far, the current threat is remote, and it is still early days even for small scale usage of Alaska’s iVoting option. But while the threat is still remote, it might be good for the public to see some more about what’s “under the hood” and who’s in charge of the engine — that would be our idea of more transparency.
Wandering off the Main Point for a Few Paragraphs
So, in closing I’m going to run the risk of being a little preachy here (signaled by that faux HTML tag above); again, probably due to the surge in media inquiries recently about how the Millennial generation intends to cast their ballots one day. Lock and load.
I (and all of us here) are all for advancing the hallmarks of the Millennial mandates of the digital age: ease and convenience. I am also keenly aware there are wing-nuts looking for their Andy Warhol moment. And whether enticed by some anarchist rhetoric, their own reality distortion field, or most insidious: the evangelism of a terrorist agenda (domestic or foreign) …said wing nut(s) — perhaps just for grins and giggles — might see an opportunity to derail an election (see my point above about a close race that swings control of Congress or worse).
Here’s the deep concern: I’m one of those who believes that the horrific attacks of 9.11 had little to do with body count or the implosions of western icons of financial might. The real underlying agenda was to determine whether it might be possible to cause a temblor of sufficient magnitude to take world financial markets seriously off-line, and whether doing so might cause a rippling effect of chaos in world markets, and what disruption and destruction that might wreak. If we believe that, then consider the opportunity for disruption of the operational continuity of our democracy.
Its not that we are Internet haters: we’re not — several of us came from Netscape and other technology companies that helped pioneer the commercialization of that amazing government and academic experiment we call the Internet. Its just that THIS Internet and its current architecture simply was not designed to be inherently secure or to ensure anyone’s absolute privacy (and strengthening one necessarily means weakening the other.)
So, while we’re all focused on ease and convenience, and we live in an increasingly distributed democracy, and the Internet cloud is darkening the doorstep of literally every aspect of society (and now government too), great care must be taken as legislatures rush to enact new laws and regulations to enable studies, or build so-called pilots, or simply advance the Millennial agenda to make voting a smartphone experience. We must be very careful and considerably vigilant, because its not beyond the realm of reality that some wing-nut is watching, cracking their knuckles in front of their screen and keyboard, mumbling, “Oh please. Oh please.”
Alaska has the right to venture down its own path in the northern territory, but it does so exposing an attack surface. They need not (indeed, cannot) see this enemy from their back porch (I really can’t say of others). But just because it cannot be identified at the moment, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
One other small point: As a research and education non-profit we’re asked why shouldn’t we be “working on making Internet voting possible?” Answer: Perhaps in due time. We do believe that on the horizon responsible research must be undertaken to determine how we can offer an additional alternative by digital means to casting a ballot next to absentee and polling place experiences. And that “digital means” might be over the public packet-switched network. Or maybe some other type of network. We’ll get there. But candidly, our charge for the next couple of years is to update an outdated architecture of existing voting machinery and elections systems and bring about substantial, but still incremental innovation that jurisdictions can afford to adopt, adapt and deploy. We’re taking one thing at a time and first things first; or as our former CEO at Netscape used to say, we’re going to “keep the main thing, the main thing.”