Wednesday, October 28, 2015

E-Voting denied in Switzerland over hacking fears

No one ever said that the path to progress was going to be easy, straightforward and without challenges, but that does not mean we should abandon any of the positive steps we have taken to move forward. One area where this has become increasingly pronounced is in the context of voting technology.

A very recent example of this comes from Switzerland, widely regarded as one of the safest and most affluent countries in the world. There, the government has decided to deny access to e-voting technology in nine cantons. The explanation provided is that an audit of the electronic voting system being put forth for the upcoming federal elections has unearthed a number of significant security flaws in regards to protecting voting secrecy.

The electronic voting system was developed by Unisys, a company based in the United States. “Some serious deficiencies were noted,” according to government spokesperson Andre Simonazzi. “Hackers would have been able to reveal the electors' vote, which is not tolerable in a democracy.”

Absolutely, it is of incredible importance that the confidentiality and privacy of the vote must be secured in any election, let alone one of this magnitude. However, such deficiencies should not deter governments like the Swiss to move backward in its progress toward greater and more widespread adoption of e-voting technology. With this move, over one-third of Switzerland's 26 cantons will be without access to the electronic voting system.

This follows a recent story involving Swiss expatriates who are calling for electronic technology for voting from abroad. Significant progress has been made in Switzerland and in other European countries, most notably in Estonia, a democracy that continues to serve as a positive model of how e-voting can be very successfully implemented.

A bigger part of the problem with this government question is that it may now cause citizens to question their confidence in the credibility and reliability of e-voting technology in general. The problem here comes specifically from the Unisys system and it should not reflect poorly on other systems developed by other vendors.

If anything, it further solidifies the proposition that such hacking fears, among other possible causes of concern, need to be suitably addressed by the careful selection of the most reputable vendors with proven track records. A robust series of audits – before, during and after an election is held – must also be put in place.

The decision to repeal the Unisys-developed electronic voting system may offer some positives to the Swiss people if the system is as “seriously flawed” as the government report indicates. However, it is important that the government follow up as soon as possible by pursuing another vendor and another solution in order to keep the momentum moving forward with e-voting rather than sliding back to more archaic and arguably even more flawed systems of voting. 

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The future of Internet voting in the US

Even though the actual election itself is still over a year away, all eyes both home and abroad have turned their attention on the United States. As Barack Obama has already served two terms and is not eligible for re-election, it means that this upcoming federal election will necessarily name a new President of the United States. It could be Florida Governor Jeb Bush. It could be former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It could be self-described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders. It might even be real estate mogul Donald Trump.

And while the magnitude of who will eventually emerge as the winner cannot be understated, there is another very important story related to this upcoming election that should not be ignored. The technology and infrastructure involved in running the election are in dire need of improvement and upgrading.

A recent report published by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law indicates that 43 states will be using electronic voting machines that are at least 10 years old for the 2016 elections and as many as 14 states will be using machines that are more than 15 years old. This is well past their expected lifespan, especially when you consider that many of these machines are no longer manufactured and replacement parts are increasingly difficult to find. This problem is particularly notable in a number of swing states, like North Carolina and Virginia.

While some of the wealthier counties have been able to afford the purchase and configuration of new equipment, poorer and more rural counties have been left with older, more dated machines that are more prone to issues and inconsistencies. A lot has changed in the last decade and the electoral process in the United States needs to reflect this.

Consider that the United States is only now adopting the “chip” technology for credit cards, a technology that has long since been used in a number of other developed countries. Moving ahead with the democratic process requires a similar update to the machinery and infrastructure used.

Some progress has been made in expanding the availability of electronic voter registration in the United States ahead of the 2016 election. The next major step would be to not only update the electronic voting machines that some constituents may use in person, but also to update the process to include the possibility of voting online.

To this end, the US Vote Foundation has put together a comprehensive report describing the future of Internet voting in the country. More specifically, it calls for end-to-end verifiable Internet voting, or E2E-VIV for short. This system would need to provide the proper balance of security and transparency that the democratic process requires, protecting the privacy of the vote while providing voters with the ability to check the system. Voters can see if their online ballot was recorded correctly and whether the vote was properly included in the final tally.

All current systems, according to this report, are currently inadequate in guaranteeing “voter privacy or the correct election outcomes.” The proposed Internet voting system must be usable and secure, with protections in place against “large-scale coordinated attacks, both on its own infrastructure and on individual voters' computers.”

The reality of the situation is that the United States will not be ready for widespread Internet voting in time for next year's elections. However, by following the guidelines outlined by the US Vote Foundation report, the first steps can be made to move in this direction in time for the next election. There are several fundamental challenges that need to be overcome before Internet voting can become a reality on a mass scale in the country. In the meantime, America can look to positive examples elsewhere in the world where e-voting and i-voting have been successfully deployed.

Electoral officials just have to recognize the immense importance of end-to-end verifiability of any online-based voting system they consider. 

Thursday, October 15, 2015

What the Estonian e-residency could mean for global e-voting

When seeking leadership and innovation in the area of e-voting and i-voting technology on a national scale, it's not in the United States, England or Germany where inspiration can be found. Instead, a decidedly smaller nation in the Baltic region of Northern Europe continues to act as a shining example of how a modern democracy can and should be run.

Estonia's widespread and enthusiastic adoption of secure, transparent, and robust Internet-based voting technologies is well documented and widely applauded. The country continues to move forward with new and better technologies, always looking to how its democracy can be better applied for its citizens. But what about the rest of the world?

Perhaps one of the more compelling developments to come out of Estonia in the last little while is the e-Residency project. From the official website, e-Residency “offers to every world citizen a government-issued digital identity and the opportunity to run a trusted company online, unleashing the world's entrepreneurial potential.”

The government startup effectively allows nearly anyone in the world to participate in Estonia without having to physically relocate to the European country. In effect, individuals can open Estonian bank accounts, launch Estonian businesses, and pay Estonian taxes, all via the Internet. The program is quickly growing and they anticipate that there will be 10 million e-Residents by the year 2020.

The identity of the prospective e-Resident is verified at one of the embassies located around the globe, meaning that he or she will still need to produce a passport and have his or her fingerprints recorded. The government will also conduct a background search to verified eligibility before issuing the e-Residency card.

Now, why does this matter?

The e-Residency project satisfies the requirements of Know Your Customer (KYC) regulations, allowing for improved cross-border investments and business operations while guarding against money laundering, terrorist financing, and other possible concerns. This provides lenders, crowdfunding providers and alternative finance platforms with the assurance of securely confirmed identity. What's more, while the digital signature is used extensively in Estonia, it will become legally equivalent to a traditional, handwritten signature in all of Europe's member states by July 1, 2016.

While the e-Residency program in Estonia is targeted within the contexts of online business and related operations, the fundamental guiding principles can be possibly extended to the area of electronic voting and Internet-based voting in government elections as well. If Estonia can issue an e-Residency card this way and if digital signatures can carry the weight that they will, these same technologies can be used to power elections in other countries when adapted to local conditions.

This allows for far easier access to the democratic process for citizens who may live in rural or remote areas. This provides for greater access for expatriates wishing to exercise their right to franchise from abroad. And it could significantly reduce the costs of running an election for a government while minimizing errors and maintaining the integrity of verified voters and ballots.

Challenges related to Internet voting systems are numerable, to be sure, but this e-Residency program could prove to be yet another example of how Estonia continues to solidify its place as an e-voting and i-voting global leader. 

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

On the issue of expatriate voting rights

Do citizens who are living and working abroad, particularly for an extended period of time, still have the same voting rights as the citizens who choose to stay in their home country? Should these expatriates be granted the same level of access to exercising their right to franchise, even if they haven't lived in their home country for several years?

This is surely a very controversial subject and it will continue to be a hotly debated issue as the global economy continues to grow and expand. A growing number of people are now working remotely or seeking new career opportunities in countries other than their own, all while retaining citizenship in their homeland rather than seeking citizenship where they currently reside. And what about students attending school abroad?

Most recently, a very significant change was made in Canada in regards to the voting rights of expatriates. The current Canadian government has stated that expatriates who have lived abroad for a period of more than five years are no longer be able to cast ballots and participate in the country's elections.

The rationale, according to Chief Justice George Strathy, is that non-residents should not be able to vote on laws that “have little to no practical consequence for their own daily lives.” Indeed, if legislators are passing laws related to the infrastructure of a country, like schools and roads, but the expatriate never accesses these schools and roads, should they still have a say in how these issues are resolved?

Unsurprisingly, this ruling has consequently resulted in a significant backlash from the expatriate community, including celebrated actor and octogenarian Donald Sutherland. He stated that he only has one passport – a Canadian one – and he deserves the right to vote, even if he doesn't live in Canada. He has refused American citizenship and has no interest in pursuing dual citizenship. He was made an Officer of the Order of Canada nearly 40 years ago. He feels Canadian, through and through, but he cannot vote. 

Questions have been raised as to how such laws should be applied and whether they require significant revision. Should and do the circumstances matter in determining whether a person living abroad can vote? What if it's a student taking a five-year program at a university abroad? What if it is a professional, like Sutherland, who hasn't lived in Canada for years? What if it's someone who works abroad most of the time, but comes “home” on a periodic basis where his family continues to reside?

Voting rights as related to non-residents and expatriates is not unique to Canadian politics.

A major movement is taking place among the community of Swiss citizens living and working abroad, for example, calling for the implementation of electronic voting technology. Remote e-voting was recently mandated for non-resident Indians so they can vote in elections without having to make the physical journey back home. But what does “home” really mean in this context?

And this lends itself to another related issue. If expatriates are granted the right to franchise, can e-voting better accommodate their ability to cast a ballot? Postal ballots or being forced to return to a home constituency can be inconvenient at best and an overwhelming obstacle at worst. By being able to vote through e-voting machines at local embassies or voting over the Internet instantly from anywhere in the world, expatriates can have far greater access to democracy.