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How to E-file Your Tax Return Without Crashing the Computer
Research project could lead to e-vote architecture
By , ISI

photo by fanny mak, ISI If experts ever resolve the tricky security questions that arise with Internet voting, another problem looms: Who's going to keep the election computers from crashing?

As anyone who tried to get on a news site Sept. 11, or to watch the new Star Wars trailer, can attest, millions of people converging on one site means a mess. In the case of voting, probably a very big mess. (Some 105.4 million voters cast ballots in the 2000 U.S. presidential election).

"The idea is that when you have lots of people trying to upload or send data to the same place, and there's a deadline associated with it, you get these hot spots where there is lots of congestion in the network," says USC associate professor of computer science Leana Golubchik.

Golubchik and Hanan Samet, professor of computer science at the University of Maryland, received a NSF Digital Government grant to develop a scalable and secure architecture for citizens to file information to the government. "It could be like an IRS deadline for collecting tax forms; evoting is further in the future," Golubchik says.

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Samet is working on a distributed peer-to-peer architecture similar to the Napster music download system. Golumbchik calls her system a "bistro architecture."

The idea is that parties who want to use the system would agree to act as intermediaries for the data transfers. When the individual files, he receives a secure time stamp, ensuring that he gets credit for being on time. But most of the file is still sitting in the bistro. The central server pulls the information off the bistro when it best serves its own needs.

"These hosts are not necessarily trusted; our protocols include mechanisms to ensure the privacy and integrity of the data," she says.

The trick is to make sure the data isn't changed while it sits there waiting. To that end, Golubchik has devised a "message digest" that shoots to the central server when the file is first sent. The digest is cryptograhically derived from the actual data; if the file is changed, it will no longer match the digest.

"It would require a huge supercomputer to work for many, many days to try to come up with a ballot different that the real one that puts out the same message digest," she says. "In fact, it would be nearly impossible." The IRS is the most likely partner for the project, but the concept would work just as well for e-voting, Golumbchik says.

"I have been talking to the IRS; they are quite interested in electronic submission," she says Golubchik. "Right now, what we've been testing is submitting projects for classes."