For some voters, today's elections across the UK will be a picture of convenience. Thanks to a series of hi-tech pilots, they were given the chance to cast their vote over the internet without leaving their seats. But how sure can they be that their votes arrived intact? Experts are calling Internet voting - and therefore the whole democratic process - into question.
In spite of security evaluations carried out by both the Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA) and the Electoral Commission, the Guardian revealed yesterday that independent experts have identified flaws in at least two of the projects in this year's election pilots, calling them "catastrophically weak" and claiming it would be "trivial" to manipulate votes in some districts testing the software.
The Guardian has been shown a number of web pages with example exploits against online voting pages operated by Intelivote Systems, the small Canadian firm which provided the technology for ES&S, a giant election services company managing the project for both Rushmoor and South Bucks.
The DCA said it had been made aware of potential loopholes but believed security procedures were robust enough to withstand hacking attempts. The Electoral Commission said internet security will be one of the major areas it will examine in reporting on online voting.
Today's elections are the fourth since 2000 to offer voting online, which has been scaled back since it was last offered in 2003. Then 14% of the electorate got the chance to vote via the web. Fewer councils are involved this time around: Rushmoor, Swindon, South Bucks, Sheffield, and Shrewsbury and Atcham. The government has also cut out the option to vote via mobile phone and interactive TV.
Nevertheless, Jason Kitcat, voting campaign coordinator at UK e-democracy organisation the Open Rights Group worries that the lack of a paper trail makes oversight difficult and threatens democracy. "You can't see anything, and because it's digital, copying a million votes is as easy as copying one vote," he argues.
Perhaps he is concerned about what has happened in the US, which has experienced its own e-voting problems thanks to direct recording electronic voting machines (DREs). Their use became a political hot potato in 2000 when George Bush and Al Gore each came within a few hundred votes of the presidency.
Talk of vote stealing was rife, and the machines came under such scrutiny that some states have since banned them. But scientists and pressure groups worry that the UK's efforts to modernise the electoral process could carry even greater security ramifications.
"At least you have a chance of doing an audit with a DRE. With internet voting, you can't," warns Barbara Simons, a computer scientist and expert on internet voting.
Need for public scrutiny
Simons says that DRE-based voting could be made more transparent by designing the machines to print marked ballots based on the voter's entry. These could then be fed into an optical scanner, which would register the vote. The paper trail would make it subject to a random audit.
The US-based Open Voting Consortium wants to make the source code for software used in electronic voting systems open to public scrutiny, so people can identify both intentional and unintentional flaws and prove that votes are counted fairly.
But Avi Rubin, a computer science professor at Johns Hopkins University and director of the Information Security Institute, says that the problem goes deeper. "It is not possible to find all of the bugs in a software package, even if the software is available to the public. This is why bugs are found daily in Microsoft's systems, and they have more security experts than anyone," Rubin says.
Simons and Rubin both ruled internet-based voting fundamentally insecure in an unofficial 2004 report on SERVE, the proposed internet voting system for absent members of the US military. Shortly after, the US cancelled the system.
The report argued that companies cannot control end-user PCs or the internet's infrastructure, rendering the system vulnerable to attack in multiple places. Possible exploits include the use of Trojan horse software to compromise PCs and log keystrokes, and phishing attacks to take unwitting non-technical users to fake sites and harvest their passwords.
Other proposed attacks include disenfranchisement (stopping voters from participating through techniques such as denial of service attacks), modification of votes via third parties and, depending on how systems were implemented, even multiple voting. The ability to easily trade passcodes and other information used to access internet voting sites also makes vote buying easier, say critics.
In spite of such concerns, some believe that the UK's voting process needs modernising. "Most people that read the Guardian online are banking , shopping, sending tax returns, communicating with friends and doing business on the net," says David Monks, the chief executive of Huntingdonshire District Council, who represents all the returning officers in the UK. "We have to have a serious debate about voting on the net."
The risks involved
But should the UK public accept the same level of risk in its elections as it does in its online business transactions? For example, 45m customer credit card details were stolen from the retailer TK Maxx. And late last year, UK payment industry association APACs revealed that phishing incidents had risen almost 1,500% since 2005. Amidst that, do we need internet voting at all? "Does it help or hurt citizen oversight?" asks Bev Harris, who founded the US electoral reform pressure group Blackboxvoting.org. "This is fundamental because citizens own the government, and they have to be able to oversee it."
It's not cheaper. The Electoral Commission's evaluation of the 2003 voting pilots shows cost savings were not an option unless some traditional polling stations were closed. Officials in Stratford told the Guardian that its 2003 internet voting pilot drastically increased the cost per voter.
The tradeoff was supposed to be convenience, says the report, but average voter turnout dipped slightly in councils offering remote electronic voting.
Perhaps the biggest problem to overcome is not how votes are cast, but voter apathy itself. We'll have to wait until the summer, when the Commission publishes its review of today's elections, to find out how internet voting fared this time around - and, perhaps, if there was any hacking.