The nation is grappling with the failures of its current electoral system, and many people are seeking solutions to bring the election process into the digital age. While many have questioned if online voting could be a viable alternative to the current system, citing vulnerability to hackers and other security threats, few have pointed out the crucial role that digital signatures could play in making e-voting a reality.
The passage of the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act (E-Sign) in October represented the first step in recognizing potential applications for digital signatures and their projected impact not only on the future of business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer e-commerce, but also on the American voting system. A digital signature could in fact be the key to ensuring the validity of each and every vote cast in this country in an online voting system.
The E-Sign Act recognizes that electronic signatures are as valid and legally enforceable as the pen-and-ink variety. Digital signatures, a form of electronic signature, are a robust method for securely binding peoples identities to electronic documents in a way that cannot be denied. A digital signature, which is based on a public key infrastructure, has the advantage of secure encryption that would take the most sophisticated hacker a lifetime to break. This PKI-based encryption technology can be easily employed to ensure that online voting is conducted in a safe and secure way, eliminating concerns about hacking and other security threats.
A digital certificate, which binds a digital signature to its user, is one of the key enabling tools for establishing a framework for trusted communications. It is the means by which companies, government agencies and trading partners can conduct secure and trusted digital transactions.
Making It Count
Be it a lost bag of ballots or the now infamous hanging chad, we have seen how the paper-based American electoral system can fall prey to tampering and other uncertainties. This vulnerability is not lost on todays business world, where pen-and-ink contracts easily can be modified or even lost or hindered by mail or wayward employees. That is why we see companies looking at how they can apply the E-Sign Act to their businesses, enticed by the security and enforceability that digital signature technology can provide.
An online voting system shares many of the core attributes that e-businesses require for secure online transactions, namely:
• Authentication and authorization capabilities, which are required to ensure that only registered voters vote, with voter status verified in real-time to minimize risk of electronic failure or fraud;
• Integrity, which assures that votes are not altered and that intent is not divined after the fact;
• Confidentiality, which assures privacy of process; and
• A trusted third party to effectively and impartially oversee the online voting system; this third party is embodied by the governments power to legally register each voter and ensure elections take place according to the rule of law.
Trust is a significant concern in the realm of high-value e-business. Individuals must address a host of risk and trust issues when conducting online transactions, because they often are doing business "blindly" with unknown parties. Take, for example, an online chemical exchange, in which a manufacturer has posted a price to sell its commodity. At this point in the transaction, neither buyer nor seller knows who the respective trading partner is. Once both sides have agreed to the terms of the deal, however, PKI-based digital signature technology can provide evidence of any tampering, and validate the identities of the trading parties.
Digital signature technology makes it possible to eliminate uncertainty by verifying identity and ensuring the integrity, settlement and performance of online transactions. This is most important for online B2B exchanges, where the liquidity of their markets depends on how smoothly transactions flow through their systems. Digitally signing a document provides both buyer and seller in the online world with the same type of trust that a drivers license or passport provides in validating ones identity in the real world.
We are just beginning to recognize how digital signatures will play a role in our lives, from how we interact with business colleagues across the globe to our ability to open a new checking account from a home PC. As an ever-growing number of companies and individuals turn to the Internet for business and play, we soon will start to see more creative applications of this integral technology. Online voting is just one piece of the puzzle. And although all the necessary pieces to make e-voting a reality may still be a few years away, PKI and digital signature applications are being used today to enable e-business, and increasingly will become the glue of e-commerce.