Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 23 May 2019

What can be done to ensure security while voting electronically?

One technique guaranteed to improve the security of nations casting their vote online involves a 2,000-year-old invention: paper

An Electronic Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) machine is pictured at a demonstration for voters at the New Chumta Tea Estate on the outskirts of Siliguri, India. AFP
An Electronic Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) machine is pictured at a demonstration for voters at the New Chumta Tea Estate on the outskirts of Siliguri, India. AFP

A decade ago, it was widely predicted that technology would invigorate the democratic process. It would give people more access to their governments, and would help to hold them to account. Vigorous exchanges of information would produce more open, truthful and responsible democracies.

Needless to say, it hasn’t worked out that way. Social media’s ability to hoodwink and deceive has been blamed for rising extremism and unexpected electoral swings across the world, and while the fight against misinformation is ongoing, the modernisation of the voting process has also experienced grave difficulties.

The introduction of e-voting systems has, in many cases, proven to be less efficient than advertised, with insecure software and poor administrative practices posing a threat to the veracity of election results. Last week, Microsoft announced the launch of ElectionGuard, a free software package to help governments and election officials forge a system that people can trust – but with so much concern surrounding electoral technology, should even more technology be thrown at the problem? Would we be better off with pencil and paper?

Why e-voting works

“Right now, we are definitely in a trough,” says Maurice Turner, senior technologist at the American Centre for Democracy and Technology. “Voters have, for the most part, accepted the outcome of elections because they have faith in election officials. But new procedures and new systems bring new wrinkles that can be exploited, and officials are now having to defend themselves against nation states. That isn’t fair. And unfortunately, that threat is not going to go away any time soon, if ever.”

On the face of it, e-voting seems like an eminently sensible idea. As populations grow and the number of ballots increase, computers can shoulder the burden of counting large data sets quickly and accurately – and indeed, there have been notable successes: Estonian citizens have been casting votes on the internet since 2005, while the National Election Committee in the UAE sought to simplify voting and ensure security by utilising smart IDs at voting terminals.

The introduction of technology has also improved voter registration in many countries, but, as Turner points out, if problems occur, it’s hard to reverse those modernisations. “We can’t remove every computer from the election process,” he says. “The challenge is finding out where the use of computers is appropriate, and where it is not.”

But how secure is it?

There have been attempts to undermine elections for thousands of years, but historically, the real-world effects of a single human intervention are generally small. Computers, however, can scale up that effect dramatically. And while it might sound simple to create a system that’s private, secure and fully auditable, e-voting has ­presented computer scientists with one of the most profound challenges they’ve ever faced.

Creating a record of the vote of an individual while also maintaining its secrecy is hugely difficult, and millions of lines of code are required to achieve it. This leads to a lack of transparency, because only a very small number of people know how it works. And, as the crucial link between the vote and the count is software-based, it can be vulnerable to hacking – which, of course, can be done quietly, remotely and without the knowledge of the people it’s affecting.

Computers are an easy scapegoat, especially if people are already primed to think that something is wrong, or that the election’s fixed.

Maurice Turner

Many accusations have been levelled at the integrity of e-voting systems over the years, including in India, Venezuela, Switzerland and the US. Some of those accusations were based on knowledge of weak security rather than proven breaches, but those breaches are undoubtedly being attempted. In his report into allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 American elections, special counsel Robert Mueller stated that Russians had targeted vendors of election software and installed malware on the network of at least one of them.

Over in Europe, governments in Germany, Italy and the Netherlands have put a brake on e-voting plans over fears that systems could be breached. Small human errors can compound technological problems: for example if computers are poorly maintained, if they’re connected to the internet when they’re not supposed to be, if old software is used, if insecure passwords are deployed or officials fall victim to phishing attacks.

Growing awareness of these ­vulnerabilities can shatter confidence in electoral systems, and politicians can exploit that lack of confidence if the results don’t happen to go their way. “Computers are an easy scapegoat,” says Turner, “especially if people are already primed to think that something is wrong, or that the election’s fixed.”

So what's the solution?

With a grim inevitability, technology is riding to technology’s aid. It has been suggested that blockchain techniques could improve the security of e-voting, but that has been dismissed by some cryptography experts, simply because it brings even more computers into the equation. Microsoft’s ElectionGuard system, which runs in parallel with any e-voting system and will be made freely available to election officials later this year, gives voters a way of privately verifying their vote while also letting it be counted secretly.

But the one technique guaranteed to improve the security of e-voting involves a 2,000-year-old invention: paper. “One of the lessons we’ve learnt over the course of human civilisation is that paper is, when we want it to be, durable and indelible,” says Turner. “It can supply a record of the voter’s intent and of the transaction that has occurred.”

Nearly all new e-­voting ­machines now use paper to help with auditing, and that alone may help to restore some of the trust that ­computer technology has stripped away. Turner says trust is even more important than the accuracy of the count. Without trust, democracy is undermined, and every hacking attempt (or allegation thereof) brings with it more uncertainty. “Confusion is one of the most difficult tactics to counter because it only takes a small seed to confuse, but a mountain of evidence to counteract it,” he says.

And yet, while voters are questioning the integrity of modern election systems (for example, Gallup found in 2016 that only 30 per cent of Americans had faith in theirs) they also demand the convenience that they bring. “I believe that voting on a mobile device is an inevitability because pressure for it will come from the voters themselves,” Turner says.

Ensuring that this additional convenience doesn’t deal a heavy blow to democracy is one of the biggest challenges facing governments in the 21st century.

Updated: May 13, 2019 07:54 PM