Security experts warn that 'high tech' voting and elections don't mix
Don't freak out. Yet. Image: Jack Morse / Mashable By Jack Morse2020-02-25 20:25:38 UTC When it comes to securing the vote, officials keep pushing for the latest and supposedly greatest in election technology. According to cryptography experts...
When it comes to securing the vote, officials keep pushing for the latest and supposedly greatest in election technology. According to cryptography experts at the annual RSA conference in San Francisco, that approach might just do more harm than good.
In fact, one warned, when it comes to elections, depending on technology can be "dangerous." Thankfully, ahead of the 2020 U.S. presidential election, we already have a good (if not perfect) toolset to secure the vote — we just have to choose to use it.
Speaking to a crowd of security industry professionals in the main hall of San Francisco's Moscone Center Tuesday morning, RSA Data Security founder and current MIT professor Ronald Rivest criticized voting tech like the now infamous Iowa Caucus app.
"Voting is a place where you don't need high tech to make it work," he explained. "You can get by just fine with paper ballots, and if you can keep that as your foundation — and if you do use the technology, use the paper ballots to check on it — you can do very well."
"Garbage in, garbage stored forever."
This argument, that paper ballots are a strong method to ensure the integrity of the vote, is not new. Experts like Georgetown's Matt Blaze have long made that point, while at the same time cautioning that paper ballots are "only a tiny part of a very complex problem space, and even that has notoriously difficult tradeoffs associated with it."
In other words: Yes, paper ballots are important, but they're only one important part of a complicated whole.
Rivest spoke about how technology can be used as an auditing tool, and thus contribute to a more secure and accurate vote tally. However, he cautioned, when you start down the path of "software dependence" — that is, your trust of the results is based on how much you trust a piece of software — "that's a dangerous path to go down."
"Putting a foundation of trust on electronic components that are hackable," added Rivest, "is just not the right way to go."
Rivest and his co-panelists were also quick to tamp down any lingering interest in blockchain voting. The talk of the town as recently as 2018, the promise of using the blockchain to secure the vote has fully lost its shine.
"Blockchain is the wrong security technology for voting," insisted Rivest. "I like to think of it as bringing a combination lock to a kitchen fire or something like that."
He wasn't the only one who felt that way. "Most of the use cases that have been proposed are nonsense in my opinion," Adi Shamir, a computer science professor at the Weizmann Institute, told the crowd.
"Garbage in," emphasized Rivest of blockchain voting, "garbage stored forever."
Hopefully, those who set the nation's election security policies and priorities are listening. If not, come election time we just may end up with a hot mess of stored garbage.