October 10, 2006

Voting Machines

A while ago on one of my random walks, I had a talk with a friend concerning the use of computers for elections. Without knowing anything about the topic, I remember that I had strong objections to this idea. For a simple reason: computers are machines that process information invisibly. You can not observe what's going on inside. Not even a computer expert can tell quickly and safely whether a machine has been manipuated or not. And attacks cannot be ruled out for sure. With ballot papers this is a different story, even if a machine is used to scan the papers and count the votes in order to make a fast prediction. The difference is that the results can still be reviewed by human beings afterwards. When an election is conducted without any permanent physical proof, we have to trust the machine without a chance to control their correct function. So far that's what I thought about the subject. However, the topic is actually hotter than I expected. Some weeks ago, I read at Martin Fowlers place, that also he cannot understand how a voting machine without a clear, auditable paper trail could be considered acceptable for voting. He referred to a paper from Princeton that showed how a voting machine (the Diebold AccuVote-TS) can be manipulated within one minute. This type of machine has actually been used in the US. Still I didn't know that voting machines have even been used in Germany already. Yes, they have been, namely in the latest parliamentary elections, in 2200 of 80,000 electoral districts (two million voters), and also in the local elections in Hessen this year. The machines used (Nedap) are very similar to those used in the Netherlands, where the project Wij Vertrouwen Stem Computers Niet reverse engineered such a machine and showed how, when given brief access to the devices at any time before the election, we can gain complete and virtually undetectable control over election results. Furthermore, they discovered that radio emanations from an unmodified ES3B can be received at several meters distance and be used to tell who votes what. Again, almost the same type of machine is used in Germany! Of course, also in Germany, many computer experts advise against the use of these machines. The PTB, the institute that has approved the devices has now admitted that manipulations are possible. The Chaos Computer Club demands that voting machines must be banned in Germany. I absolutely agree!

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