Wireless e-voting machines raise concern
Tuesday, January 20, 2004
By Celeste Biever
NewScientist.com news service
Computer scientists are concerned that new electronic voting machines - already bought by several US states - have been designed to have the capability to transmit vote tallies wirelessly.
Critics of e-voting have previously cited uncertified software upgrades or bugs in the programs as problems, but they say the new touchscreen machines' wireless potential poses a novel security threat.
The makers of the new machines, Diebold Electronic Voting Systems in Canton, Ohio, point out that none of the AccuVote-TSx machines currently contain the matchbox-sized card required to make a wireless network connection.
But, unlike their predecessors, they do have a slot for the card, called a PCMCIA slot. And Diebold spokesperson Mark Radke told New Scientist that wireless capability could be implemented "if required by the jurisdiction" simply by inserting a card and configuring the machine.
Fast and fair?
Proponents of e-voting argue it makes elections faster and fairer, avoiding the clerical errors that can occur with traditional paper votes.
Transmission of voting tallies via a wireless network would enable a central server to collect all the votes from a polling station quickly - currently the memory cards from all the e-voting terminals have to be physically collected. Wireless connection could also allow software to be updated remotely.
"The benefits to election officials would be huge," admits Doug Jones, a computer scientist at the University of Iowa. But for Jones and other computer scientists contacted by New Scientist, the potential risks outweigh the benefits.
Some say wireless communication is too insecure to be trusted with the democratic process. They also point out that simply having the PCMCIA slot means a bogus election official or voter could secretly slip a wireless card into the machine. If this happened and a wireless link was made, it would be very difficult to monitor who was trying to hack the terminal.
"Wireless capability is almost ideally suited for hackers," says Avi Rubin of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "They no longer have to get physically close to the machines to tamper with them." Rubin published a report in July 2003 claiming numerous software flaws in Diebold's earlier touch-screen voting machines.
LAN or WAN
The specifications for the TSx machine, seen by New Scientist, make it clear they could support a wireless local area network (LAN) or wide area network (WAN) card: "The method of loading data on to the AccuVote TSx's PCMCIA Flash Card will be by means of a modem or LAN/WAN/wireless card plugged into the PCMCIA slot."