Blockchain Technology To Safeguard Votes In Elections
As technology touches every phase of our lives, excitement in the use of electronic voting in elections has been increasing; its backers claim that like this, it can make votes more reliable and quicker to count.
However, while this might appear as simple as updating the old paper process for the modern age, this transformation to electronic voting has not been without obstacles.
Security researchers have revealed several vulnerabilities in electronic voting machines used throughout the U.S., while the concept of mobile application-based voting comes with concerns about verifying voters and dread of election fraud. As a result, some have recommended the use of blockchain-based voting as a solution.
The idea is that by using blockchain, a decentralized distributed ledger technology, it becomes much more difficult to tamper electronic votes.
While blockchain is famously utilized to record bitcoin transactions, it has also been examined in areas including storing medical records, authenticating physical transactions, etc.
During 2017-2018, there were several examples of blockchain being tested in election systems, with differing results, and governments across the world have resumed testing the technology during the past year.
‘The city of Zug,’ known as Switzerland’s ‘Crypto Valley,’ tested a blockchain-based e-vote last summer, which saw ‘220 citizens’ with a registered digital I.D. eligible to vote on the platform built by ‘Luxoft’ and ‘Hochschule Luzern’s Blockchain Lab.’
Following the trial, a study of residents of Zug found that four in five embraced the use of e-voting in the city; however, there was a dispute whether blockchain enhances the security of e-voting or makes it more of a hurdle. Merely 21% said they considered blockchain technology made electronic voting more secure, while 16% said they had security concerns.
Various citizens also wished to continue to have the alternative to vote by traditional mail until further progress is made with e-voting.
One of the significant benefits put forward by blockchain voting advocates is that it helps secure electronic voting from hacking, tampering, and other external intervention. However, there have been many cases where blockchain-based voting systems found harbor security flaws.
In August, a security researcher found a crucial vulnerability in the Ethereum-based voting system set to be used in the ‘Moscow City Duma’ election. In the worst-case situation, the vulnerability could expose the votes cast by individuals using the system, which was developed by the ‘Moscow Department of Information Technology.’ On being apprised of the issue, the department said it would fix the vulnerability before the vote.
Amidst the 2020 U.S. Presidential election approaching, electronic voting and election security are high on the agenda. While the U.S. plans for Vote 2020, there have been some confined trials of blockchain-based voting at a local level.
Participants in the trial are principally military personnel deployed overseas. They used a mobile blockchain app developed by a company called ‘Voatz.’
After downloading the app from the ‘Google Play Store’ or ‘Apple’s App Store,’ users had to offer their mobile number and an eight-digit code, besides verifying themselves with photographic I.D. and facial recognition technology.
Once activated, the users can send electronic votes through the app, proving their identity with facial recognition of fingerprint scanning. Approximately 150 users across 24 divisions used the Voatz blockchain app during the midterm elections last year.
Following the election, it was reported that someone had tried to gain unauthorized access to the system, although no votes were viewed, altered, or impacted. Since then, ‘Senator Ron Wyden’ has written to the ‘Department of Defense’ to call for the Pentagon to audit Voatz, quoting concerns that the app doesn’t do enough to protect against outside interference. In a statement, Voatz said Senator Wyden hadn’t reached it and that it would welcome any audit.
However, if the technology behind blockchain-based voting can be negotiated, that proposes questions about the security of a system that advocates claim can resist fraud and interference.
A user could go through all the expected steps to verify themselves on their device. Still, if the back end has been arbitrated, then it’s all for nothing because while it’s challenging to modify the blockchain, it’s not entirely impossible.
“There is nothing called as complete immutability — you will always be able to change something or the other, it’s just a fact of how difficult it is. But in the case of blockchain, it’s indisputable when it happens, which is a hindrance,” says ‘Martha Bennett,’ V.P., and principal analyst at Forrester.
“How do you ensure that the votes are kept a secret? You want the clarity of knowing who has been voted for, but at the same time, you can’t have the voter’s identity is associated with a vote,” says Bennett.
“I’m personally really doubtful that this is the right technology.”
But, as illustrated by the trials of blockchain-based voting, there is renewed craze for the use of the technology in this way.
Enfranchisement via technology
Some concerns need to be rolled out before it could go mainstream. Some believe that the influx of new technology in this space could be the way to bring democracy into the 21st century: where people demand ease and convenience, to be capable of doing something at the tap of an app, instead of walking to a community center to cast a vote.
That component of convenience can bring profits, in that it encourages more people to turn out and mesh in the democratic process.
“Every country which has trialed electronic or blockchain voting for real elections has had uptake increased enormously. It’s more convenient,” says ‘David Galindo,’ senior lecturer in computer security at the University of Birmingham and lead cryptographer at A.I. and blockchain start-up ‘Fetch.AI.’
“Convenience plays such an essential role in other parts of life, think how we’ve progressed from cash-based payments to contactless payments, it’s solely about convenience.”
When cashless and contactless payments first prefaced, there were fears around security. Yet, because people started using products in this way, the banking industry had to work to make it secure.
The same could occur when blockchain-based voting becomes more extensive, as regulations will be needed about systems, apps, and back end — moves that will actively make the systems more reliable by default.
“When a country or a region do these trials of introducing online voting, what you see is a side effect. As they have to rethink their processes and procedures, and that brings an additional layer of compliance and thinking to the system,” Galindo stated.
Voting is something which, remains the same as it has been since ballots began over 200 years ago. In the U.K., for instance, it still requires putting a cross on a paper ballot. For Dr. Galindo, that should be updated, and electronic voting provides the answer.