Friday, December 20, 2013

Estonia continues to innovate with new I-voting modalities

Most people likely would not name Estonia as their first choice of countries that are cutting edge, technologically advanced, but the demographic republic in the Baltic region of Northern Europe is actually one of the most forward thinking, particularly when it comes to the technology implemented in its government agencies and national voting paradigms.

While Estonia still offers a more traditional way to cast a ballot, it also has a long standing history with the adoption of Internet-based voting. It has even gone so far as to open up its “server side” source code to the public. For security reasons, the client side code remains secret and protected, but the server side is open to public scrutiny. And the Estonian population has embraced the I-voting revolution.

In the most recent parliamentary election in October of this year, over 133,000 voters cast their ballots electronically rather than using the more manual method. This represents over 20% of all the ballots cast in the election and what's even more interesting is that voters had the opportunity to vote online using their choice of no fewer than three different modalities, including one that involved mobile phones.

Measures were taken to ensure that all three of the online voting options were as secure as possible, authenticating the ballot while not necessarily connecting it directly to any individual voter. This worked in much the same way as a double-envelope method may be used with a more traditional ballot; the paper ballot is placed in an unmarked “inner” envelope, which is then placed inside of an “outer” envelope with the voter's information. A clerk can verify the outer envelope information, removing the sealed inner envelope to place it into the ballot box. For the purposes of the online ballot, a digital signature and PIN served a similar purpose.

The first of the Internet voting options involved the voter using the government-mandated ID card with its two public key infrastructure (PKI) based digital certificates. With this secure card and a card reader (available nationwide in many stores), the voter inserts the card and enters their PIN codes while on the government e-voting website and downloads and runs the voting application. They can confirm their identity with their first PIN, select their preferred candidate, and confirm the vote with their digital signature by entering the ID card's second PIN. After that, the person receives the confirmation that the vote has been registered on the system.

The second voting option involved the use of an alternative “digital ID card”, also issued by the government and used primarily for online purposes. Just as the first method, the voter navigated to the government e-voting website using the credentials and security afforded by the digital ID card and its corresponding codes.

The third and newest method of I-voting in Estonia involved a mobile phone and a PC computer. The user registered for a mobile ID by providing the government with the SIM card from their phone, along with their government-issued secure ID card. The two were linked and the user was provided with two secure PIN codes via text message. The voter then navigated to the e-voting website on a computer, entered their phone number and first PIN code, and cast the vote. The second PIN was entered on the corresponding mobile app on the phone and the ballot was then authenticated.

Another innovation tested at the October election was a verification system of I-votes, developed to detect with a device (in this opportunity only Android mobile phones or tablets) if the computer you used to vote was infected with any malware that changed the I-vote or blocked the I-voting.

While there are certainly concerns surrounding Internet voting, Estonia's comprehensive system demonstrates how it can be implemented to great success. Other countries and governments around the world may benefit from collaborating with and learning from Estonia's example.