Voting in West Virginia has achieved much higher technology and experts focused on electoral security are not happy
. This fall, the state will become the first in the United States to allow some voters to submit their federal election votes using a smartphone app, part of a pilot project that mainly involves army members serving 39; abroad. The decision seems to fly in the face of years of dire warnings about the risks of online voting issued by cybersecurity researchers and defense groups focused on electoral integrity. But even more surprising is the way West Virginia officials say they want to tackle those risks: using a blockchain
The project has aroused bitter criticism from electoral security experts, who argue that, as designed, the system does little to solve the problems inherent in online voting.
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We heard about the West Virginia pilot in May, when the state tested a mobile app, developed by a startup called Voatz, during the primary election. The test was limited to foreign voters registered in two counties. Now, citing the third-party audits of these results, officials plan to offer the option to overseas voters from across the state. Their argument is that a more convenient and safer way to vote online will increase the turnout and that a blockchain, which can be used to create records that are extremely difficult to tamper with, can protect the process against interference.
But this premise has been controversial since the beginning. After two fellows from the Brookings Institution wrote an essay praising West Virginia for pioneering the use of blockchain technology in an election, Matt Blaze, a cryptographic and security researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, strongly rejected . It is not that the blockchains are bad, said Blaze, who testified (PDF) before the Congress last year on the information security of the elections. It is that they introduce new security vulnerabilities and that the protection of voting against fraud "is easier, simpler and more secure with other approaches," he said.
Blaze and many other electoral cybersecurity experts oppose online voting of any kind because, they feel, it's fundamentally insecure. Although a number of countries have adopted this practice, in 2015 a group of cryptographers, computer scientists and political scientists examined carefully (PDF) the prospect of Internet voting in the United States and concluded that it was not yet technically feasible. Protecting devices connected to hacking is difficult enough, and even if this could be achieved, the development of an online system that preserves all the features we expect from democratic elections would be incredibly difficult to achieve.
The Voatz system uses biometric authentication to identify individual users before allowing them to mark an electronic ballot, and the votes are then recorded in a private blockchain. The company says that in a general election pilot project, its system will use eight "verified verification nodes" or computers (all controlled by the company) that algorithmically check that the data is valid before adding it to the chain.
The system is not so much a blockchain app as a mobile app with a linked blockchain, says Marian K. Schneider, president of Verified Voting. The blockchain can not protect information while traveling on the Internet and does not guarantee that the choices of the user are accurately reflected. "I think they have made many statements that do not really justify any more trust in what they are doing than any other internet voting system," says Schneider.