Thursday, February 16, 2012

Internet voting

I like to coin words. I am a fan of Stephen Colbert. And so I have coined the word "oxytopian" to talk about this dream of a secure Internet voting. I think that's -- secure Internet voting is a bit like the phrase safe cigarettes.
- RONALD L. RIVEST, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Today there was a story on PBS News Hour about internet voting.  This may sound like deceptively simple problem especially given the fact that there are many internet polling products in the market already.  Polling problem has been solved multiple times.  Most notably with Facebook Question, you can easily set up polling among your Facebook friends.  Is voting different from polling?
Internet voting problem -
tell me who to vote, but I won't show how it's recorded;
this is a worthwhile problem to solve.
Definitely.  Voting is constitutional right while polling is, well, a neat little survey tool.  Stake is so much higher with voting.  If internet voting gets compromised for any reason, then the entire democratic system is in jeopardy.  Imagine Group Anonymous rigging the vote to invalidate the election result.  It will be catastrophic to American people's confidence in our election system as a whole.

Internet voting cannot be just about voter's convenience.  If every vote is digitized and collected in a single environment, the attractiveness of the target goes up that much to potential hackers.  It would be that much more vulnerable to hackers who can break in to the single environment and manipulate the results.  Internet voting has to be handled in balanced way.  We have to think about the security and integrity of voting results as well as convenience of being able to cast your ballot anywhere internet is available.

Internet voting is not just about security, however.  We have been conducting our election in anonymous way.  We cast our ballots privately, but demand a way to verify the result if needed.  Voting results must be secret yet verifiable to win voter's confidence.  While keeping each vote secret, the system must allow individual vote to be checked by each voter.

It's not an easy problem.  But it is definitely a worthwhile problem to solve.  Who knows, if Google and Facebook were to be successful with real identity enforcement, they might be able to use social graph to authenticate each member and create trustworthy voting system.


  1. Jae - You're right that internet voting is not an easy problem. Every voting system, internet voting included, should be held to the highest standards. Voting is the foundation of a healthy democracy and it's critical that our elections are accurate and trusted. Unfortunately, our current election systems are too often inaccurate and untrusted. These problems are well known among votnig experts and even the general public but change has been slow to come. 

    Secure internet voting, in the long term, may offer solutions to some of these problems but research and development is at a standstill because of the deep concerns from computer scientists and others. I have great respect for Ron Rivest but I don't think the prospects for internet voting are quite as bad as he makes out. To be sure, internet voting is a technical challenge of the highest order, but it is almost certainly not, as Dr. Rivest has often said, impossible. This kind of rhetoric may be useful by highly quotable and it may even be useful in keeping insecure internet voting deployments at bay but it may do so to the detriment of legitimate long term research on the subject. 

    As to Rivest's comments on the impossibility of internet voting, I've transcribed some of them here and contrasted his comments with those of Astro Teller: 

    Each of us should judge for ourselves whether Rivest's impossibles are indeed impossible or whether they are technical hurdles that will be overcome with the right mix of innovation and determination.

  2. Thank you for thoughtful comment.  I too am hopeful that we'll solve internet voting problem soon.  It seems that there can be many approximations to entirely on-line voting system, such as part online and part paper approach.  Key would be to make the voting accessible to many more who does not exercise their right today for one reason or another.