With trials taking place across the country and the vision of an electronic general election after 2006, e-voting is at a critical stage in its development.
The government is putting plans forward - and trials are taking place within the UK - to complement and, eventually, replace the old-style "tick list" voting methods with electronic voting systems.
The UK is not alone, legislation is being passed and elections are being held across the globe advocating the use of this technology. In the US, legislation has already been rolled out with the Help America Vote act, and electronic voting systems were used for the 2003 Governor of California elections, with 40% of voters there casting their ballot online to elect Arnold Schwarzenegger as the governor of the fifth largest economy in the world.
However, before these systems become mainstream there need to be guarantees about security levels to ensure e-voting cannot be corrupted by hackers, ballot fixers and IT failures.
Despite being in use for significant Governor elections, some reports (see http://newswww.bbc.net.uk/1/hi/world/americas/3169706.stm) from the US have indicated that the source code for these e-voting applications are poorly written, and that they don’t have the kinds of controls in place usually expected for such a critical system.
Reports have also shown that the smartcards used for identification can, allegedly, be duplicated, allowing someone to have multiple votes. These reports are worrying, and safeguards must be put in place to address the concerns raised.
The security of these systems is all-important, doubts cannot linger when e-voting goes live throughout the UK as this could have a substantial impact on public confidence in all online systems, including shopping and banking sites. If the systems are seen to be fallible, our whole democratic system will be put into jeopardy.
For e-voting to take off, the public needs to be assured that the systems being used are watertight, and the government has to be in a position to demonstrate that thorough testing and security checks have been carried out.
With e-commerce worth £57bn to the UK economy in 2002, we cannot afford for this to happen and e-voting systems must be as secure as Fort Knox if technology is to help drive democracy forward rather than backwards. Those of us who work in IT need to exert pressure to make this happen, to ensure that public confidence in the online applications and services we develop and manage is not threatened.
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Mike Lucas is regional technology manager for Compuware, UK and Ireland.