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Alaska's Online Voting Leaves Cybersecurity Experts Worried

Experts warn of online voting's risks even as Alaska's Internet ballot system was deployed in a pivotal election

3 min read
Alaska's Online Voting Leaves Cybersecurity Experts Worried
Image: Mike Kemp/Getty Images

Some Americans who lined up at the ballot boxes on Tuesday may have wished for the convenience of online voting. But cybersecurity experts continue to argue that such systems would be vulnerable to vote tampering — warnings that did not stop Alaska from allowing voters to cast electronic ballots in a major election that had both a Senate seat and the governorship up for grabs.

There was no evidence of tampering during the first use of Alaska’s online voting system in 2012. But cybersecurity experts have gone on the record as saying that hackers could easily compromise or alter online voting results without being detected. Alaska’s own election site includes a disclaimer about votes cast through online voting or by fax.

“When returning the ballot through the secure online voting solution, your are voluntarily waiving your right to a secret ballot and are assuming the risk that a faulty transmission may occur,” according to Alaska’s Division of Elections website.

Alaskans can vote online by filling out an electronic ballot through a web-based interface, saving the file as a PDF and then transmitting the ballot to their county elections department. But cybersecurity experts told The Intercept that Alaska’s online voting system — developed by Scytl, a Spanish-based company — could be compromised by hackers from anywhere in the world. One expert’s team spent just a day to figure out how to remotely change the results on supposedly locked PDFs without being detected.

More than 30 U.S. states already allow members of the U.S. military deployed overseas to cast electronic ballots. But such voters must also accept a waiver saying they understand their vote may not be secret, according to Pamela Smith, president of Verified Voting, a nonprofit organization, in a USA Today interview.

The U.S. Department of Defense conducted a study of Internet voting security in 2011, but has refused to release the results despite multiple requests from state officials and activists. Such reluctance seems unlikely to encourage confidence in online voting security.

Online voting does take place in a few countries. Estonia’s citizens have voted online since 2005 by using what many experts consider to be the most secure online voting system currently in existence. The system has added security from the fact that Estonia issues every citizen a national ID with a unique online identity, according to Vox.

But even that system appears to be open to cyber attacks. Computer scientists at the University of Michigan found a number of methods that could potentially steal votes or tamper with results on the Estonia voting system’s servers, Vox explains. The researchers went so far as to suggest Estonia discontinue its online voting system because of the risks. (The same team hacked a pilot online voting system set up by Washington, D.C. in 2010.)

Online voting could have some benefits for the election process if experts could figure out how to build a more secure system. For instance, one study found that a voting through a smartphone app could helped reduce the number of voter errors compared to using traditional voting methods. Still, the cybersecurity risks for even the best online voting systems appear incredibly daunting at the moment.

U.S. states may also want to ensure that enough of their households have broadband connections to make online voting practical. Alaska may have pioneered online voting in the U.S., but the state ranks near the bottom in the U.S. for both top-end broadband speeds and even slower Internet connections of just 200 kilobits per second among households, according to a 2013 report issued by the Alaska Broadband Task Force.

The Vox explainer also points out that the mere availability of online voting does not seem to boost voter participation, at least according to a 2005 paper by Adam Berensky, a political scientist at MIT. Instead, any “get out the vote” effort may have much greater impact through social media platforms such as Facebook’s clickable “I Voted” button.

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Metamaterials Could Solve One of 6G’s Big Problems

There’s plenty of bandwidth available if we use reconfigurable intelligent surfaces

12 min read
An illustration depicting cellphone users at street level in a city, with wireless signals reaching them via reflecting surfaces.

Ground level in a typical urban canyon, shielded by tall buildings, will be inaccessible to some 6G frequencies. Deft placement of reconfigurable intelligent surfaces [yellow] will enable the signals to pervade these areas.

Chris Philpot

For all the tumultuous revolution in wireless technology over the past several decades, there have been a couple of constants. One is the overcrowding of radio bands, and the other is the move to escape that congestion by exploiting higher and higher frequencies. And today, as engineers roll out 5G and plan for 6G wireless, they find themselves at a crossroads: After years of designing superefficient transmitters and receivers, and of compensating for the signal losses at the end points of a radio channel, they’re beginning to realize that they are approaching the practical limits of transmitter and receiver efficiency. From now on, to get high performance as we go to higher frequencies, we will need to engineer the wireless channel itself. But how can we possibly engineer and control a wireless environment, which is determined by a host of factors, many of them random and therefore unpredictable?

Perhaps the most promising solution, right now, is to use reconfigurable intelligent surfaces. These are planar structures typically ranging in size from about 100 square centimeters to about 5 square meters or more, depending on the frequency and other factors. These surfaces use advanced substances called metamaterials to reflect and refract electromagnetic waves. Thin two-dimensional metamaterials, known as metasurfaces, can be designed to sense the local electromagnetic environment and tune the wave’s key properties, such as its amplitude, phase, and polarization, as the wave is reflected or refracted by the surface. So as the waves fall on such a surface, it can alter the incident waves’ direction so as to strengthen the channel. In fact, these metasurfaces can be programmed to make these changes dynamically, reconfiguring the signal in real time in response to changes in the wireless channel. Think of reconfigurable intelligent surfaces as the next evolution of the repeater concept.

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