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Expert says flawed e-voting systems need constant audits

Panelist at RSA 2008 says election officials are stuck with flawed electronic voting systems and the only solution is to require audits after every election.

Elections departments around the country have spent millions on electronic voting systems that are flawed and officials aren't about to throw them out and start all over. The only solution is to conduct audits to verify the count after every election, a researcher and expert on electronic voting said at RSA 2008 on Thursday.

David Wagner, computer science professor at University of California, Berkeley, led a state of California-commissioned study last year of the three major electronic voting systems. The study found serious vulnerabilities in each system that would allow someone with access to just one of the machines to spread a virus that would infect all the other machines in the system and essentially control the outcome, he said in a panel discussion electronic voting.

The systems have architectural weaknesses, implementation flaws, and defects, similar to problems in commercial software that isn't designed with security in mind, according to Wagner.

"This puts our election officials in a terrible position," he said, adding that officials are stuck using the machines. As a result, audits are the only solution.

The audits should be public and they should be done automatically, as they are in California, which requires a paper trail, Wagner said. He praised the California audit methodology in which paper ballots are manually counted in a random sample of precincts.

Other researchers are coming to similar conclusions. At a conference in February, Princeton graduate student J. Alex Halderman suggested using machine-assisted auditing. And Ronald Rivest, professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, said during a cryptographer's panel on Tuesday at RSA 2008 that voting systems should not depend on the software to capture the vote, but use paper or some other means.

The problem is, not every state that uses electronic voting equipment has a paper trail and many states don't do audits, even if they have paper ballots to count, Wagner said.

Hugh Thompson, chief security strategist at corporate security training firm People Security, who has researched flaws in e-voting systems, was pessimistic about whether audits will be widely adopted any time soon.

"If an election is close, in a lot of cases an audit, even if you have a paper trail, isn't conducted," he said. "In Florida, the election officials told us at the time that (in the event) they were suspicious, they didn't have authority to institute a recount."