Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Should America allow voting by smartphone?

As ironic and as counterintuitive as it may sound, the “phone” part of a “smartphone” is likely one of the device's less important and least used actual function. People are using their smartphones as their primary digital cameras these days. The smartphone is also commonly used as a primary timepiece, rather than a traditional wristwatch. The standalone MP3 player has largely been replaced by the smartphone too and the same thing is happening with GPS navigation and mobile gaming. And then there is everything to do with Internet access, including web browsing, email, social media, news reading, blogging, vlogging and more.

With smartphone ownership and use at an all-time high, one technologist is positing a very compelling question: why can't we vote by smartphone too? The convenience factor is undeniable, because it means that voters can simply cast their ballot over the Internet is a truly digital and remote fashion. It doesn't matter if they are at home, at the office, on the commuter train or enjoying a cold beverage at the local cafe. As long as they can get online, access the voting portal and get verified, they can cast their ballot and they can do so weeks before the official voting day.

In many ways, this is an extension of the argument for more widespread Internet voting. There are inherently many advantages and disadvantages to online-based voting systems, like the importance of being able to properly authenticate the identity of voters and to ensure the secure and confidential transmission of the voting data over the network. These are all valid and they are just as applicable to smartphone voting as they would be to voting on an Internet-connected PC.

Interestingly enough, however, voting on a smartphone may arguably offer even more security features than a desktop computer. It has been observed that even among people who do not own a personal computer of their own, they may be more likely to own a smartphone. This allows for greater accessibility. What's more, a growing number of modern smartphones already integrate biometric verification technology. The Apple iPhone 6 and the Samsung Galaxy S6, for instance, both feature a fingerprint reader for user identification. Facial recognition technology is also available. But are these security features enough to guarantee the integrity of the authentication process?

The argument made by Alissa Walker does not call for biometric authentication specifically, but this is an area that is being explored in many areas across the United States. New Mexico is one example.

There are barriers to widespread adoption of smartphone voting, such as the fact that every state has different election rules. Assuming that all security and integrity guarantees are met, voting by smartphone could become a fit option to replace postal voting, offering people the opportunity not only to order their absentee ballot online and through a smartphone, but also the ability to submit that ballot through a smartphone. The goal here is to completely digitize the absentee ballot.

An initiative named Vote by Smartphone from the group Long Distance Voter is going to offer a prototype pilot test as part of the upcoming 2016 Presidential elections in the United States. The test will be limited to just two states, but it could serve as a real-world demonstration of how this could work. Voter identity could be verified using an e-signature, like the DocuSign electronic signature technology for authentication.

Further exploration and testing is needed, but Vote By Smartphone sounds like a compelling idea and could represent a part of the democratic future in America.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Is Bulgaria ready for an e-voting revolution?

Even though the prospect of electronic voting technology has been proposed and discussed for a number of years in Bulgaria, its acceptance and implementation have not yet been fully realized. Supporters of e-voting technology are quick to point out the strengths of these potential systems, including the improved cost-effectiveness of electronic voting compared to traditional ballot systems, as well as the possibility of improved voter turnout and the faster tabulation of results.

There are challenges to overcome, to be sure, but the first step that the Bulgarian government needs to take is to establish a dedication to the adoption of e-voting technology for the country's elections. Only then can these challenges be addressed by vetting the right technology vendors, erecting the appropriate infrastructure, and setting the checks and balances in place to ensure the sanctity and integrity of the democratic process is upheld.

Earlier this year, it was announced that a referendum would be held in Bulgaria to determine the public opinion on several key matters as related to the mechanisms of voting in the country. At the time, several questions were being posited, including those regarding the possible introduction of compulsory voting and majority voting, but those questions have now been reduced to just one: the issue of e-voting.

The Bulgarian members of parliament have now decided that the only question to appear on the upcoming referendum will be the one regarding whether or not the people of Bulgaria wish to adopt e-voting for future elections. The original referendum would proposed by President Rosen Plevneliev and the decision to only ask about e-voting was favoured by 131 out of 175 members of parliament.

Now, it is up to the people of Bulgaria to decide whether or not they would like to have e-voting as part of their regular democratic process for elections. This referendum question will be asked at the same time as the local elections scheduled to take place on October 25 of this year. E-voting has been discussed for years in Bulgaria and, should the referendum pass, its implementation can finally move on to the next stage.

Bulgaria will hardly be the first country in the world to look into or introduce electronic voting technology into its elections. Because of this, Bulgaria will be able to leverage and learn from the experiences of these other countries. Estonia continues to be a leader with its secure Internet-based voting system. Many countries now offer direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machines in place of traditional paper ballots. Some use electronic ballot counting machines to replace manual counting.

The possibilities are numerous. In this increasingly digitized and interconnected global community, Bulgaria should be ready to step into the 21st century to join these other countries in the e-voting revolution.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Security flaws in Buenos Aires’ Unique Electronic Ballot

Citizens welcomed the introduction and use of technology. The results were tabulated, processed and reported far more quickly than if the polls had been counted up in a manual fashion. However, not all was well. It was revealed by computer programmer Joaquin Sorianello that the Vot.ar electronic voting system provided by MSA and used in the Buenos Aires election had as security flaw. According to the site boing boing, “The Vot.ar system's cryptographic certificates are easy to extract, creating an easy route to manufacturing fake voting totals or simply overwhelming the service”.

Despite being “only” a programmer with no ill will and no intention to hack into the election system for fraudulent purposes, Joaquin Sorianello was raided by the local Argentine police. All of his computer equipment and storage devices were confiscated in the raid after he alerted MSA of the fatal flaw. The revelation that the SSL certificates were being held on an unsecured server did not come to light until 10 days after the election had concluded.

"If I wanted to hack or do something harmful, Sorianello told La Nacion, “I would not have told the company.”

This latest episode in Argentina clearly illustrates a powerful lesson for the implementation of electronic voting technology in a modern democracy. Security cannot be sacrificed in the name of convenience. It is important for the electoral commissions of the world to work only with trusted vendors with strong track records for security, transparency, and privacy.

Technology played a very prominent role in last year's general election in Brazil and the government there strove to provide the highest level of security possible with its e-voting efforts. Similarly, Russian officials were able to stave off attacks on its e-voting system. While it is impossible to protect against all attacks from all directions, due diligence must be conducted to reveal and solve any security flaws in the e-voting infrastructure well ahead of a general election. Having a strong audit system in place for before, during and after an election is a good start.

It may be true that a more complex system can be more difficult to manage and it may prove to be detrimental to providing greater universal access for citizens wishing to exercise their democratic right. However, if the system is not adequately secure, accurate and reliable, no level of convenience will matter.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Expanding Electronic Voter Registration in USA for 2016

The political system in the United States can be incredibly difficult to understand at the best of times, partly because of the way that the responsibilities are handled. Even though the federal election to decide the next President of the United States clearly has ramifications on a national level, the particulars of registering to vote and casting a ballot are not handled at the federal level. Each state has its own control over how voters cast their ballots and how those ballots are tabulated.

Although the United States of America is widely regarded as one of the most advanced countries in terms of the strength of its democracy, it is still curious to see that, when it comes to elections, it still lags behind many other nations that may otherwise be seen as less developed. In many states, voters must still register manually with a physical paper form. It's time the United States moved into the 21st century.

As a positive, several states have moved ahead with some form of electronic voter registration and this trend has continued to pick up momentum. The pace at which electronic and even online voter registration has been adopted in the different states has steadily quickened in recent years. In 2008, only Arizona and Washington State offered online voter registration, but that group grew to some 20 states by 2014.

Looking ahead to the general election next year, more states will be reportedly adding themselves to that list. This follows the recommendation put forth by the Presidential Commission on Election Administration in January, which pushed for reducing wait times at polling places and the “continued expansion of online voter registration” for the nation's citizens.

A prime example of this is happening in the state of Ohio where a bill was introduced in February to set up an online voter registration system that could serve as a suitable replacement for the traditional paper forms. Introduced by Republican Senator Frank LaRose, Senate Bill 63 could help to “improve the accuracy of our voter records, reduce the potential for fraud and protect voter privacy, all while reducing costs to the taxpayer.”

In addition to improved accuracy and reduced costs, the introduction and implementation of an online voter registration system in Ohio could help to get more people registered to vote. In turn, this would bolster voter turnout and provide for a more representative government. Heading into 2016, a total of 27 states, plus the District of Columbia, have either implemented or passed legislation for online voter registration.

While the bill has not yet been signed into law in Ohio, it has received overwhelming support by the Ohio senate, which passed Senate Bill 63 by a vote of 31 to 1. The next step is for the bill to be debated and passed by the Ohio House of Representatives. The vote on the bill may not occur in the House until later this fall.

Contemplating even higher levels of security, the state of New Mexico is considering the introduction of biometric voter authentication as part of its voter registration and verification process. This simultaneously decreases the likelihood of fraud and increases access to the universal right to suffrage for individuals who may otherwise be challenged to produce reliable photo identification. More side-lined groups like the Hispanic and Latino community would benefit greatly from such a change.

That's still not all 50 states in the union, but significant progress continues to be made in an environment where change has not come easily.