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Pentagon Defends Plan for Internet Voting - 2004-01-22

The Pentagon is defending its plans for an on-line Internet voting system intended for U.S. military personnel and Americans living abroad. That system has come under fire from experts who say it could be vulnerable to computer attacks.

The congressionally-mandated project is called SERVE, which stands for Secure Electronic Registration and Voting Experiment. In the 2004 election year, it will be tested by an estimated 100,000 absentee voters, most of them military personnel, registered to cast ballots in several U.S. states. A Pentagon spokesman, Glenn Flood, says the system could be used during some of this year's late primary contests and definitely will be used in the November election.

But four computer security experts say in an independent report this week that the system should be scrapped because it is, in their view, too vulnerable to computer attack.

They say weaknesses in the system could jeopardize voter privacy and allow votes to be altered and even election results to be tampered with. They say there are far too many opportunities for hackers or even terrorists to interfere with fair and accurate voting, potentially, they say, in ways impossible to detect.

The experts, including computer scientists from the University of California, Johns Hopkins University and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, say the danger of large-scale attacks is so great that they recommend shutting down the further development of the SERVE voting project.

But the Pentagon is brushing aside the warning. Spokesman Glenn Flood acknowledges there is no such thing as 100 percent security on the Internet. But he says the experts' bottom line, to be safe, do not do it, is unacceptable. He says the experts' concerns are well-known and will be resolved.

The Pentagon spokesman also calls the warning issued by the four experts what he terms "a minority report," noting six other experts asked to study the SERVE system decided not to issue any statement on vulnerabilities.

A small-scale test of computer voting was conducted in the 2000 election by a small number of mainly military personnel registered to vote in four states.

In the past there have been frequent complaints that absentee voters, especially military personnel and Americans living abroad, have faced unusual difficulties in casting ballots, with some effectively disenfranchised because of mail problems or their military assignments.