Will Internet play a part in S'pore election?

The answer is likely to be no, although one expert says it is possible to design a Web-based polling infrastructure that addresses legislative and privacy concerns.
Written by Jeanne Lim, Contributor
SINGAPORE--Election fever may have gripped one of the most wired nations in the world, but the prospect of Internet voting remains unlikely in the upcoming Singapore general election.

Currently, electronic voting (e-voting) has yet to be approved in the island-state. In the Singapore context, e-voting refers to votes that are recorded via specialized machines or kiosks located at polling stations. Votes that are polled from the Web are referred to as Internet voting.

"I would vote from the comfort of my home... the question is whether there are mechanisms, checks and balances in place to ensure that the Internet voting process is fairly, and securely, conducted."
-- Terence Tan
medical doctor

The last time the Singapore government broached the topic was during a parliamentary debate on Mar. 11, 2004, when Minister of Home Affairs Wong Kan Seng said the government intended to try out e-voting in two single-member constituencies during the last general election in 2001. Wong is currently also the country's deputy prime minister.

However, the 2001 election was called while the process of authenticating the system was still ongoing. Wong had said then: "As a result, we ceased the effort of certifying that system. We have to start all over again at the next election."

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is expected to call for elections in the coming months. (Editor's note, posted Apr. 20: The Singapore government has announced that the country's general election will be held on May 6, 2006.)

When contacted, an official from the Electoral Department said the possibility for Internet voting to take place now or in the future, "are very slim", due to privacy and security issues.

"Any form of electronic voting will be [restricted] to using machinery at a booth, rather than over the Internet from home," she said.

ZDNet Asia understands that none of the countries in Asia has implemented Internet voting, although some forms of e-voting--via machines--have been deployed in some nations, such as Australia, South Korea and Japan.

Australia has had an eVACS, or Electronic Voting and Counting System, since 2001. The first machines ran on Debian Linux machines, until 2004, when the platform was changed to a proprietary system.

According to the Korea E-voting Promotion Council's Web site, Internet voting will be "pursued cautiously after forging a political and social consensus and formulating perfect technical countermeasures concerning system security".

Until then, Korea's National Election Commission is targeting to implement a standalone e-voting kiosk in 2008. According to the Commission, the e-voting machines will not be connected to a network in order to prevent any potential hacking.

The cautionary stance taken by Asian governments on Internet voting could stem from past cases of errors when e-voting was deployed.

During the 2004 United States presidential election, the Ohio Secretary of State's office admitted to transmission glitches which gave President George W. Bush almost 4,000 phantom votes in preliminary results that were posted online.

Moot points
Internet voting has drawn both flak and approval from individuals standing in opposing camps. Supporters believe that because it is more convenient, Internet voting could encourage more citizens to participate in their country's elections. Its detractors, however, say Internet voting is inherently insecure, and voters could be subjected to coercion.

The issue has been hotly debated worldwide, so much so that some concerted lobbyists have set up interest groups such as the Internet Voting Technology Alliance (IVTA), which aims "to advance the science and technology of voting".

ZDNet Asia spoke to two Singaporean individuals who mooted the idea of Internet voting in the country, on the condition that the process is secure, and that privacy is ensured.

Dr. Terence Tan, 33, a general practitioner in private practice, feels that Internet voting should be implemented for the upcoming general election, but only in a restricted manner. He noted that there are "technological threats that could possibly compromise the authenticity of votes".

Dr. Tan said: "I would vote from the comfort of my home if I could. However, the question is whether there are mechanisms, checks and balances in place to ensure that the Internet voting process is fairly, and securely, conducted."

Clemen Chiang, 32, is all for Internet voting as it allows the election committee to tabulate results faster and more efficiently. The Singaporean runs his own business, teaching self-directed traders about trading U.S. stock options online, and is also a local community grassroots leader.

"Nothing beats being there yourself in the voting booth, marking down your choice, and physically dropping your vote into the ballot box."
-- Joe Ng
music producer

Chiang noted that polling should be conducted "in a voting booth that is equipped with a computer, Internet access, and the necessary security measures".

"The election committee must respect the privacy of voters who choose to vote via the Internet," he added.

Is it then technically possible to build an infrastructure that addresses privacy and security concerns associated with Internet voting?

Setting the stage
According to IBM, the answer is yes, if certain conditions are met.

Bernard Van Acker, associate IT architect at IBM Global Services, told ZDNet Asia that for Internet voting to take place successfully, authenticity, secrecy and integrity are three aspects that must be looked at simultaneously. Switzerland, he said, is one country that has conducted remote voting for the past 10 years.

He noted that concerns over authenticity are not uncommon, and voters typically expect measures to put in place to ensure authenticity. But, Van Acker cautioned, a country's electoral committee must bear in mind that citizens may not be willing to make "heavy installations", such as software downloads and smartcard readers, just so they can vote remotely.

"This can have an enormous impact on the [level of] participation," he said.

As to ensuring secrecy and integrity at the same time, various techniques have been proposed and some of them effectively applied, he added. There are three classes of measures: source-code control of the applications, cryptographic measures to encrypt the data, and a separate paper audit trail.

"Each has its advantage and disadvantages," Van Acker explained. "What seems to work well in practice is to have the citizens themselves perform, or give them the ability to perform, part of the audit themselves, for example, by verifying that the vote [transacted] correctly".

While it is all well and good to be able to design a technically-sound infrastructure that is compatible with current legislation, there are other "soft issues" to consider as well.

Van Acker pointed out that a major part of the effort must be focused on communicating the design with stakeholders.

"It has to convince a non-technical public," he said. "Pay as much attention on usability as [you do] on security, remember that you're targeting a very broad public, not just tech-savvy people."

Despite the possibility that a secure infrastructure can be built, there are still some who are firmly against Internet voting.

Music producer Joe Ng, 39, considers himself Internet-savvy, but feels that voting "should not be treated lightly and just be dispensed over the Internet" for the comfort of voters.

The Singaporean is concerned that votes can be traced back to specific IP addresses, revealing the voter's identity, as well as the possibility of vote-rigging.

Ng added: "Nothing beats being there yourself in the voting booth, marking down your choice, and physically dropping your vote into the ballot box."

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