Friday, July 11, 2014

Is the Internet the future of voting?

Sir Richard Branson, the business magnate and investor who founded the Virgin Group, published on March 24 a post on his blog with the title -Is the internet the future of voting?

The inquiry served to bring to the surface the stark contrast between those in favor of I-voting, and those who consider the technology currently available is not ready to be implemented in government elections. In spite of the differences in positions, the post showed an overwhelming interest on what seems to be one of the next big things in the digital era. 

Answering his own question, Sir Branson made a compelling yet simple argument. In its 25 years of existence, the Internet has transformed countless areas of our lives, and, although it has yet to make it into the balloting process massively, it is already affecting politics. From e-petitions to live debates to breaking news, cyberspace is the arena where politics are being played out. 

At this point in time, it is not hard to imagine that most electoral authorities around the world would share Branson’s view on the advantages of Internet voting. Remote online voting expedites the voting experience, simplifies logistics, and reduces costs. As a perfect substitute for traditional mail voting, it is called to facilitate the vote of expatriates. Online voting is also a perfect means to enfranchise disabled voters, a very sensitive group of voters current technology can serve as never before.

But moving from concept to implementation is seldom easy. Internet voting still faces many challenges – e.g. voter coercion, identity fraud, vote selling/buying – that need to be resolved. Authorities must guarantee to the average voter that the vote counted was the same vote cast. And, regardless of the method used to cast a ballot, it must remain secret and secure. 

To circumvent these obstacles many countries – e.g. Estonia, Norway, France, the US, Australia, Switzerland, and India - have experimented with Internet voting achieving varied results. Estonia and Norway, who have used Internet voting in binding elections, have shown contrasting results in recent elections. 

Norway began piloting Internet voting a few years ago. In 2011 a first test was conducted in 10 municipalities and in 2013, two more municipalities were added. Although the pilots showed some early success – 168.000 eligible voters (4.5% of the population) chose to cast their votes online, and 250.000 (7% of population) in 2013 – important security issues forced the Norwegian Ministry of Local Government and Modernisation to put the project to a halt last week. 

One of the most concerning issues raised during the tests was the encryption failure that compromised the secrecy of some 40,000 voters (54% of the total) who exerted their right remotely.

Scytl, the Spanish firm tasked with designing a method to guarantee vote secrecy and security, failed to configure a secure encryption algorithm that would protect the vote being cast in the voter´s personal computer before sending it to consolidation servers. See 2hrs27mins of this video for more details. 

Although Norwegian authorities had acknowledged the technical issues aforementioned, in a recent press release they blamed the lack of broad political support as the reason why the Minister of Local Government and Modernisation, Mr. Jan Tore Sanner, decided not to continue expending public resources on continuing the pilots.

Despite Norway´s set back, there are reasons to believe Internet voting will become a worldwide reality soon. Estonia, the only country that has successfully carried 7 national elections giving its voters the option to cast a ballot remotely, announced two weeks ago the creation of a R & D lab to further develop its platform, and to begin sharing its experience in government elections with electoral commissions from around the world.

Internet in Estonia is succeeding in part to the long term approach authorities adopted. A government controlled lab created over a decade ago, carefully developed a system that has already been used in national contests to great success. In the last European Parliament election in March, a third of the voters used the remote online system. This system will continue to evolve as citizens and Government continue to use it.

Estonia is now called to continue leading the way in making Internet voting a reality for all.