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Drawing the boundaries of the Web

Singaporeans will go to the polls on May 6 to elect their new government, and they'll do so the traditional way--on pen and paper. Should one of the world's most wired nations have introduced online voting?
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor
commentary Over 1.2 million Singaporeans will go to the polls tomorrow to elect a new government. With 47 out of 84 available seats up for grabs, this general election marks the first time since 1988 that the current ruling People's Action Party (PAP) was not returned to power on nomination day.

However, it will not mark the first time the Internet was used to gather electoral votes. But should it?

The Singapore government decided against tapping on the Web during the nation's last election in 2001, citing the lack of security and secrecy as key barriers. More recently, its Electoral Department told ZDNet Asia that Internet voting is unlikely to take place in the future, where electronic voting will be limited to the use of a kiosk located at the polling station rather than the Internet.

Singapore's concerns are not unfounded.

The U.S. state of Ohio gave President George W. Bush nearly 4,000 extra votes due to a transmission hiccup that resulted in the erroneous preliminary election results being posted online. A year before, hackers managed to penetrate the network of an e-voting software company in the United States.

Reports of security breaches and software vulnerabilities still make news headlines on a weekly, if not, daily basis. It's small wonder then that there are voters who strongly oppose the idea of Internet voting.

One Singaporean told ZDNet Asia: "Whoever thought of the idea of Internet voting is ill-informed and obviously, has no understanding of the democratic process." He suggested that votes cast over the Web can always be traced back to the user via his computer's unique IP (Internet Protocol) address. "It is not so much the actuality of that happening but the thought of it which paralyzes voters."

Scour the Net and you'll find petitions against the use of the Web, and even electronic kiosks, to gather votes in an election.

But some have argued that the ability to vote from the comfort of a home PC could encourage a higher participation rate. Because voting is compulsory in Singapore, low voter turnouts are not an issue in the island-state.

The United States, however, has struggled with sluggish voter participation. In a country where every vote counts, and recounts once became the joke of the town, Net voting would play a significant role in encouraging an otherwise-indifferent voter to participate.

But, what about the need for secrecy? The question though, is whether there can ever be absolute privacy.

Every computer or network that's plugged into the Web risks the possibility of falling prey to a virus attack or illegal port scan. Each time you visit the Net to make a purchase, book an airline seat, chat with a friend, or simply to surf a Web site, there's always a chance that someone's tracking your every step. Heck, even Amazon knows I enjoy listening to songs from Barry Manilow and which ten DVD titles I last viewed on its site.

But the Internet has become such an integral part of the economy and community that most of us are willing to accept the dangers, choosing instead to mitigate these risks with antivirus tools, firewalls and anti-intrusion applications.

Sure, if it truly wanted to, a government could very well be willing to sieve through millions of voter names, trace the identities of online voters and penalize those who chose the opposition. However, how many are willing to do all that and risk being exposed and thrown out of office?

Sun Microsystems Chairman Scott McNealy gave a brilliant one-liner that pretty much sums it up nicely: "You already have zero privacy--get over it."

And, lest we forget, it wasn't too long ago where some of us were apprehensive about exchanging messages via e-mail and capturing personal data online because of privacy concerns. We got over it.

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