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Estonia pulls off nationwide Net voting

Only about 1 percent of ballots were cast online in the tiny country's elections, but officials deemed the process free of glitches and hackers.

A tiny Baltic nation last week became what appears to be the first country to open its local elections to Internet voting on a nationwide level--although only about 1 percent of the votes were cast online.

Estonia, which has a population of roughly 1.4 million and is geographically about the size of New Hampshire and Vermont combined, counted a total of about 1 million registered voters in its local government council elections, an election official said in an e-mail to CNET Roughly 9,200 votes were cast online, the official said.

Election officials told the Associated Press that they considered the elections a success and had received no reports of glitches or attempted hacking. In January, they tested the system by having approximately 800 residents in the city of Tallinn register their responses to a poll.

The online system works through use of an . Since 2002 the card has been mandatory for all Estonia residents older than 15. The card is intended as a means of proving one's identity at any place--from banks to government offices--that normally requires identification to process forms or transactions.

To vote online, users must insert their cards into readers connected to their computers and log on to the voting Web site. Once authenticated, they cast their ballots through an encrypted system and then affix their digital signatures to verify the selections before transmitting them.

More votes, more tampering?
"This country seems to have made a very concerted investment in promoting e-government generally, and this is just one component of what they're doing," said Thad Hall, a professor at the University of Utah and co-author of a book on Internet voting. "It sounds pretty likely they're going to keep doing these types of activities into the future."

Hall said he believes Estonia to be the first country that has carried out Internet voting nationwide in an actual election, although France, the United Kingdom and the United States have also conducted pilots.

On American soil, the idea of online elections has earned mixed reviews. In 2000, Arizona became the first state to try online voting during primary elections. Several thousand voters tried to participate, but a series of Y2K-related glitches interfered on its first day.

Last year, the Pentagon largely scrapped a project that would have permitted overseas expatriates to cast ballots over the Net. But shortly after that decision was announced, Michigan reported success with an Internet voting system used by about 50,000 voters during the presidential primaries.

Estonia's relatively small voting population may curb the level of risk for tampering, said David Wagner, a computer science professor at the University of California at Berkeley who has spoken out about the possible vulnerabilities of Internet-based systems.

"There's a lot more incentive to hack an election if there are millions of voters and you can swing important races," Wagner said. "Whereas, if only hundreds of voters are voting over the Internet, there's going to be a lot less incentive to exploit the vulnerabilities."

Voting on PCs, he added, is an "inherently insecure platform" that always poses a risk of viruses, worms and spyware that are "targeted to subvert the election by either monitoring how people vote or tampering with the votes that are submitted."