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Internet Visionary Travels Back to the Future
E-cash pioneer revisits electronic voting
By , ISI

photo courtesy of david chaum For 15 years, American cryptographer and mathematician David Chaum struggled to establish digital cash as the virtual coin of the new Internet realm. The first new payment system since the credit card, e-cash as widely considered the sleeping giant of the late 90s dot-com boom. And Chaum was indisputably the pioneer, the first to take e-cash out of the science fiction realm and turn it into cold mathematical truth.

Chaum insisted his e-cash be untraceable, like cash. From the Amsterdam headquarters of his Dutch company, Digicash Inc., Chaum conducted interviews whose very crypticness was portrayed as evidence of his genius. He was described, variously, as an Internet visionary and "privacy guru."

But his emphasis on privacy made many nervous. Worried about the speed and anonymity of e-cash transactions, authorities, particularly in the U.S., eyed him with a great deal of caution. Digicash forged partnerships with some major European banks, but never managed to break big on the American financial scene. The company eventually went bankrupt, although its technologies live on at Infospace Inc., which purchased Digicash's latter-day avatar, e-Cash Technologies, in February 2002.

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Now, Chaum has turned his energies to trying to establish secure, private and untraceable electronic voting. Sounds familiar? For Chaum, it's a trip back to his roots. The cryptographer's first major paper, published in 1981 when he was a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, was about providing security and protecting privacy in elections conducted over computer networks. Specifically, his ideas built upon the concept of public-key cryptography, and the use of digital signatures.

"I got interested in those particular techniques because I wanted to make [anonymous] voting protocols," Chaum told Wired magazine in 1994. "Then I realized that you could use them more generally as sort of untraceable communication protocols."

"Now it turned out the paradigm was flawed because of viruses, bad software, things that when I wrote the paper weren't an issue," Chaum says today in a phone interview from his Sherman Oaks company, SureVote. "A lot of people didn't even have computers then."

Chaum renewed his interest in electronic voting in early 2000, when he started to think about how elections in emerging democracies could be internationally validated.

"Struggles for democracy last a decade and culminate in an election, then it has to be thrown out because of allegations of improprieties," Chaum says. "What they need are irrefutable results."

Chaum calls the solution he came up with code voting. Pre-audited paper ballots with serial numbers are distributed to voters. The voter scratches off the space next to his candidate's name to reveal two numbers. He relays one of the numbers to election officials who either phone the code in or send it over a computer. A message comes back with another code, which should match the second, secret number on the voter's ballot. If it does, the voter knows his choices were recorded correctly, and he can throw his paper ballot in the fire.

The codes are all random and different. The keys to breaking them are held in concert by a number of countries. No one country can change votes, or trace them back to individual voters. The balloting can be videotaped to make sure no one is casting a ballot with an AK-47 at his head, Chaum adds.

"It's extreme stuff, pretty hard-core, but it could be actually needed to save a country," he says. If questions arise, "you won't have to redo the election or have a civil war, you just do a recount."

After Florida 2000, Chaum felt the U.S. elections system could also use his ministrations. "I felt it was my duty to adapt the system and repackage it to work here," Chaum says.

The SureVote Web site currently features demonstrations for code voting by telephone, Web browser and Direct Recording Electronic touch-screens. "Phone voting is pretty cool. It's a way to send absentee ballots in immediately, it's anthrax-proof and it can't be changed or lost or spied on," Chaum says.

In addition, SureVote has something it calls Indelible Ballots, described as paper documents with opaque scratch-off latex "button". Codes are printed both on and under the scratch-off latex. To cast a ballot, you must give the under-latex code for your candidate, plus the over-latex codes for the other candidates.

Chaum's latest idea is for a fool-proof voter receipt that assures the voter his ballot was cast corrently without violating his privacy.

Public confidence in elections is as important as accurate and verifiable voting technology, he says. "I worked on electronic cash as a way to help the world; that's why I do all this stuff," Chaum says.

The biggest barriers to election reform are not technological, but human, he adds. Chaum has nothing but contempt for those who say electronic voting can't be done.

"The whole voodoo of trusted machines, trusted officials, logic and accuracy tests, the whole shell game and mumbo-jumbo is a waste of people's time," he says.

" The answer is very simple. The fact it's so screwed up does not imply that the solution has to be complex. The U.S. spends billions on verification of nuclear weapons, weapon systems, a level of effort infinitely more than the U.S. spends trying to improve voting technologies."