Thanks again to David Jefferson for his post yesterday on the lessons for Internet voting of the Google/China news (NYT: In Rebuke of China, Focus Falls on Cybersecurity). To answer some follow-up questions, I’ll explain a bit about the term vote servers that David referred to.
Let’s start with a little background on Internet voting. Many peoples’ cybersecurity concerns about i-voting have a focus on the vulnerability of the voter’s Internet-connected computer, on which a Web browser is used for i-voting. The browser communicates with an i-voting Web server (or vote server), displays ballot items, allows the user to make vote selections, and so on (very similar to what many people do with surveymonkey and similar services on the Internet today). The security concerns are valid, whether the client computer is a home PC or a special-purpose kiosk system in a physically controlled polling place set up in a military base overseas.
But just as important is the “server side” of i-voting – the Internet-connected vote server, the Web server front-end, the database it uses, and all the other datacenter infrastructure. That infrastructure is one basket with all the eggs – the data that is used to create an election result. So of course there is concern over that basket being a target itself. After, why trouble with renting botnet time, crafting malware to distribute to already-hacked PCs, and the other work required to tamper with some of the i-ballots at the source? Why bother, if you can tamper with all of the ballots’ votes at the single destination? Good question, and the typical answer is that attacking the source is much easier, if you assume that an i-voting datacenter uses “industry best practices” for security, as is the common claim of i-voting vendors and service providers.
But as the continuing Google/China news shows us, dedicated, politically motivated adversaries have been quite able to penetrate the defenses of the I.T. plant of some of the biggest most tech-savvy companies with some of the best I.T. and security staff in the world. That being the case, why should anyone blithely accept any claim that a i-voting datacenter is sufficiently defended to protect the vote data and the election itself?
Now, nobody is suggesting that the Chinese government would try to hack Internet elections for real U.S. government offices. But now look at it from the point of view of a responsible election official, pondering the offers of for-profit vendors of proprietary i-voting solutions, who have indeed run a few election pilots and would like to have the business of running full elections out of their data-centers using their i-voting systems. The vendors claim that they have spent “enough” time, money, and effort on security. The question is whether …
… some small company that has run a few election pilots has any chance of locking down its vote servers so tightly that it can withstand a similarly determined “highly sophisticated and targeted attack” when Google and these other big company’s cannot?
That’s not a rhetorical question! The vendors are probably not the right judges about “enough” but there are several U.S. election officials who are currently mulling i-voting for overseas and military voters; they are the ones who need to weigh the risks and benefits, the required security and controls — hopefully with the advice from some of several the election technology and security experts at work on election tech or policy today.