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Online Voting Security

Ina Rottscheidt (nda)
March 4, 2007

The parliamentary elections in Estonia could be considered a world premiere: The people of the Baltic state are the first to vote for a new parliament via the Internet. However, critics of the system fear security gaps.

Estonia has made it possible to vote online, whether at home or on the moveImage: picture-alliance/dpa

According to one of the project managers behind the I-Voting system, the procedure is quick and easy. The voter pushes the electronic chip of his identity card into a reader, calls up the special electoral web page on the Internet, gives two PIN codes and puts his cross beside one of the parties. "This takes no longer than 15 seconds," says Tarvy Martins.

Up until late on Thursday evening last week, about 940,000 voters registered to vote in Sunday's Internet election. After a test run during the local elections in 2005, the number of voters accepting the I-Voting system has sky-rocketed.

To ease the vote, the necessary card readers have been installed in all public places with Internet connections in Estonia and many private individuals have bought their own home reader so they can vote from the comfort of their own home.

Estonia miles ahead in Internet coverage

Galerie EPA EU Erweiterung Estland Internet
Even the most remote areas are onlineImage: EPA PHOTO / NIPA / TIMUR NISAMETDINOV

The Baltic state is one of the most Internet-savvy countries in the European Union due to a burst of technological development soon after its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Even in the most remote areas of the country, one can use wireless technology to surf. The PIN numbers used for the I-Voting system have also been adapted to make shopping, tax returns and all administrative processes possible and secure online.

Even the country's administration has embraced the technology and has moved towards E-Government, thus increasing political communication and information via the Internet.

It is no surprise, therefore, that the Estonians will become the first nation worldwide to choose their government online.

Electoral monitoring body skeptical over security

However, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the body which observes all elections in Europe, views the on-line development, with skepticism, with many officials doubting the level of protection and security of information. But Tarvy Martins is convinced that the procedure is fool-proof. "This is like a double envelope. The choice is encoded and then sealed. It is quite difficult to cheat."

The biggest technical challenge of the I-Voting system is the authorization and identification of the user as an entitled voter, while making sure that the vote remains anonymous.

"Technically, this is not a big problem," explains Dieter Otten, a member of the German Federal Ministry of Economy and Technology's research group into electronic voting. "Since the 1980s there has been the principle of the digital signature and asymmetrical encoding." He also believes that high encoding technology makes the security and implementation of online elections "fool-proof."

"The bigger challenge is communication," remembers Otten. It has been more difficult to persuade lawyers and politicians of the security of online voting than to design a functioning system. The people who have to decide on whether to use the system, Otten says, are dealing with something they don't fully understand.

Internet-doubters holding back German progress

Landtagswahl im Saarland mit Wahlmaschine
Germany is behind Estonia in terms of election technologyImage: dpa - Fotoreport

Those with doubts and power in Germany prevented the last election in 2005 from being an E-lection and it remains increasingly unlikely that a change in opinion will take place in the near future.

"I-Voting, for judicial and technical reasons, does not do justice to the special requirements of political elections in Germany at the moment," says Annette Ziesig of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

Dieter Otten accuses Germany of being obsessed with security to the point that the measures brought in to protect the traditional voting process can be more expensive than developing I-Voting to fit the needs of the German electoral system. He believes, in time, Germany will follow the Estonians into a new age of voting.

Back in Estonia, I-Voting is becoming the norm. The system was already in place for the 2005 local elections, and last week the dress rehearsal took place for the parliamentary elections. In a surreal test of the system, an elk, a deer and a wild boar went head to head for the title of "King of the Wood." Because the animal vote was just a test, only those creatures involved know who finally came out with the woodland crown.

Coalition partners out in front in forecasts

Estland Wahlen Internet Ministerpräsident Andrus Ansip Stimmabgabe
King of the Wood? Prime Minister Andrus AnsipImage: AP

No such mystery will surround the result of Sunday's human poll with surveys already putting the biggest partners in the government coalition -- the Reform Party and the Center Party -- out in front. Despite forecasts to the contrary, the vote could be far from a shoo-in for the incumbent Prime Minister Andrus Ansip's Reform Party.

Whatever the result, Estonia will have taken a big step in leading the rest of Europe -- and the world -- towards a new process of electoral voting.

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