Meet the Computer Scientist Who Helped Push for …

Security Pro File: Award-winning computer scientist and electronic voting expert Barbara Simons chats up her pioneering days in computer programming, paper-ballot backups, Internet voting, math, and sushi.

Barbara Simons has been fighting for secure elections for two decades. But the award-winning computer scientist, who’s also well-versed in voting technology and its security vulnerabilities, doesn’t consider herself a security expert. Everything she’s learned about election security, she says, came from hanging out with security experts.

“My job had nothing to do with security. My training is in computer science,” she says. “I’ve never hacked [a] machine … [but] I think I could learn [how to],” she says.

Simons, 79, has been a major and influential player in the movement to institute paper-ballot backups for electronic voting systems and in warning about the security risks of Internet voting. She and many other computer scientists argue that computers and software alone can’t properly handle the task of tallying votes.

“You can’t trust computers to work properly [with voting systems],” says Simons, who has served on multiple projects and task forces on election security. “You need paper as a check on the computers.”

In 2000, online voting in US elections had sounded like an exciting and promising prospect to Simons when she joined the Internet voting study task force convened by then-President Bill Clinton.

“In those early days looking at Internet voting, it was, of course, why not? I thought it was a good idea,” recalls Simons.

But her enthusiasm quickly waned. Security experts from academia and government labs shared grim assessments of the major security risks in online voting, so the final report published by Simons and other members of the National Workshop on Internet Voting flatly rejected the notion of shifting to online voting in the new millennium.

“It basically said, ‘No,

How artist Janice Lourie, 90, became a trailblazing computer scientist at IBM

Janice Lourie and patent attorney Charles Boberg at IBM in 1970. Below them is a monitor displaying a pattern she created with her software.
Janice Lourie and patent attorney Charles Boberg at IBM in 1970. Below them is a monitor displaying a pattern she created with her software.Courtesy of IBM

Back in 1954, Lourie was a technical editor, playing clarinet in a Boston-area ensemble, when the pianist, an MIT chemist, hired her to process data on punch paper tape.

“It was a pretty rote job,” said Lourie, now 90, over Zoom from her home in Arlington, Vt. The chemist published a paper on the project, and in a footnote mentioned Lourie as a contributor.

“It felt wonderful,” she said. She was off and running.

She speaks humbly about her work in computers, as if her path unfolded purely by luck and circumstance. In 1957, IBM hired her, and she moved to New York, where she devised a program implementing a new computer language, LISP, developed by John McCarthy at MIT. The research helped lay the groundwork for GPS and artificial intelligence.

“It’s a way to start at the top and finger your way through and encompass every point in the tree,” she said. “I fell in love with the ability to trace trees.”

Lourie published her own paper on the project. That’s when IBM gave her carte blanche. There weren’t many women in computer science, and the field was burgeoning.

“I was allowed to name my own project,” she said, and points to computer pioneer Grace Hopper as “leading the way.”

“There was no resistance to women’s employment or advancement in those days,” Lourie said.

It was 1964. Lourie had been a weaver since she was 7, growing up in Chelsea, making rugs for her dollhouse on a loom her father built. Now, weaving gave her an idea.

The Jacquard loom, invented in 1804, runs on punch cards. It inspired 19th-century computational coding,