Accenture elects VeriSign for e-voting

Troops overseas <@SM>to use online system for absentee ballots

IT solutions in action

Project: Secure electronic Registration and Voting Experiment

Agency: Defense Department, Federal Voting Assistance Program

Partners: Accenture Ltd., Hamilton, Bermuda, and VeriSign Inc., Mountain View, Calif.

Goal: The Defense Department has many military personnel, families and contractors stationed around the world who vote in each election. Moving to an Internet-based system eliminates the delays inherent in sending paper absentee ballots through the mail.

Obstacle: Verifying the identity of each voter and preventing fraud are difficult challenges for online voting.

Solution: By using VeriSign's managed public key infrastructure service, Accenture can verify the voters over the Internet using a public key assigned to each service member through the Defense Department's Common Access Card. When a user signs on to Accenture's voting system, VeriSign's service validates his or her credentials by checking the common access card key against its own database of registered voters.

Payoff: The Defense Department expects to serve 100,000 voters over the Internet for the 2004 primary and general elections. Accenture has simplified the management for this project by relying on one vendor to provide both the identity management service and hosting service.

Barry Leffew of VeriSign

J. Adam Fenster

As recent headlines have shown, building a foolproof electronic voting system is difficult. A successful system must protect the voter's privacy while ensuring strict accountability of each vote cast.

For the Defense Department, Accenture Ltd., Hamilton, Bermuda, is developing an online voting system that can be used by military personnel out of the country to cast absentee ballots. This is part of a $10.5 million contract from the Defense Department's Federal Voting Assistance Program.

"We're replacing the postal system with the Internet system," said Meg McLaughlin, chief executive of Accenture's eDemocracy Services practice.

To firmly establish the identities of the people casting votes, Accenture is using an online, managed, digital certificate service from VeriSign Inc., Mountain View, Calif.

By using the public key infrastructure support system that VeriSign already has in place, Accenture eliminates the need to set up and maintain its own service for establishing and checking the digital credentials of voters, McLaughlin said.

The project, known as the Secure Electronic Registration and Voting Experiment, will enable troops, their dependents and other military personnel stationed outside the United States to vote in 2004 primary and general elections. Using a Web browser, these users can vote over the Internet from any military computer. The local jurisdictions provide the appropriate voting forms electronically to the voter.

Thus far, seven states have signed up to use the service in the 2004 elections. Accenture expects 100,000 participants to use the service next year.

The identities of the military personnel are verified through the Defense Department's Common Access Cards, which personnel must use to sign onto the computer. The card has the user's public key, an encrypted number that will be verified over the Internet by VeriSign. Nonmilitary users will use a password and must answer a series of personal questions to gain voting privileges.

The system is immune from tampering by its unique design, McLaughlin said.

The system establishes an encrypted channel between the voter and the voting officials in local election offices. After receiving the votes from absentee voters over the Internet, officials feed the results into their jurisdictions' vote tabulations. Once cast, a vote does not appear on a computer screen, so a voter cannot sell his or her vote by providing photographic evidence of it.

Because the potential for abuse is so great, both government and citizens scrutinize e-voting heavily.

As a result, Accenture "needed a facility that is incredibly, physically secure," McLaughlin said. It also could not suffer any downtime during elections.

VeriSign hosts two domain name root servers that help provide the basic Web address index for the Internet.

"We've made enormous investments to make sure we have a high-performance environment. From that infrastructure, we are able to leverage these services for our customers," said George Shu, vice president of business development for VeriSign.

For instance, four major telecommunications carriers simultaneously serve the facility in Dulles, Va., that holds a root server to ensure constant uptime. It also has an advanced disaster recovery backup measures in place.

VeriSign also simplifies Accenture's infrastructure management.

"The fewer vendors you have to manage, the better. Because VeriSign has the digital certificates and the ability to get them to the users, it makes it easier for us to work with them as one entity," McLaughlin said.

In the market for digital certificate products and managed services, VeriSign competes with Baltimore Technologies plc, Hertfordshire, U.K., and Entrust Inc., Addison, Texas. VeriSign reported revenue of $1.2 billion for 2002, against which it lost $5 billion, due largely to amortizations and write-downs in goodwill and intangibles, according to the company.

VeriSign is banking on agencies increasingly requiring digital certificates for e-government initiatives and in-house security. By offering digital certificates as a managed service, VeriSign estimates that a buyer can save weeks or months by not setting up the solution itself, said Barry Leffew, VeriSign's vice president of its public-sector group.

Accenture established its eDemocracy Services practice last June to pursue what officials expect to be a growing market.

Thus far, the company has done voter database work for Florida, a number of pilot e-voting programs for the United Kingdom. France, Sweden and Italy are also looking at trial programs, McLaughlin said.

"We think Internet voting is coming. It won't happen overnight. It will be an evolutionary process," McLaughlin said. "But we'd like to be there and we think the Federal Voting Assistance Program is a really important one in getting us out there."

If you have an innovative solution that you recently installed in a government agency, contact Staff Writer Joab Jackson at jjackson@postnewsweektech.com.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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