The vote based on the blockchain arrives in West Virginia


No voting booth required. Charles Mostoller / Reuters

A startup called Voatz wants to build an unequivocal way to vote on the internet. What could go wrong?

Vote in the United States is an intentionally high effort. Elections are held at polling stations in person, open during the hours when most people work, on a day that has not been celebrated. They are governed by strict electoral identification laws designed to eliminate impostors and in many cases succeed primarily in depriving black people of their rights. And they are often executed with decidedly low-tech methods, with paper cards, susceptible to user errors (never forget: hanging chads) and (random or deliberate) errors of assessment

The efficiency, some have supported, it is not the point of the voting procedure. Security is But in this election season, West Virginia is testing a new voting system based on the blockchain that officials hope they can get both simultaneously. And experts call it "a horrible idea".

In April, the state began asking citizens who serve abroad to exchange absentee votes sent by e-mail, sent through an application run by a Boston-based startup called Voatz. No one is forced to switch to the new system, but two counties have opted for a primary pilot in May, and the overseas servicemen of each county are eligible to use it for the November elections. The votes will be converted into paper forms and registered with the other absentees. They will all be counted together in November.

The process itself is not that complicated: Blockchain is, based on its simplest elements, an online database of transactions. In the context of an election, those transactions are votes; the blockchain server itself is more like a virtual urn and an all-in-one voting administrator. The identities are confirmed by selfies and IDs issued by the state, and then doubly anonymized, according to Voatz, "first from the smartphone and then from the blockchain server network".

West Virginia is the first US state to attempt a blockchain -run election of this scale. But Voatz has conducted more than 30 pilot elections (from the 2018 MassDems convention to the student council elections) since its launch in 2015, recording more than 75,000 votes in the process. After the first West Virginia May pilot, "four checks of various components of the instrument, including its cloud infrastructure and blockchain, have not revealed problems," CNN reported.

Trust in this new approach is growing all over the world. The Japanese city of Tsukuba was the first in the country to introduce its own version of voting based on the blockchain this year, even for members of the military service abroad. Voters verify their identity in the system using the Japanese version of social security identifiers and affect not on elected officials, but on proposals for local social development programs. In Moscow, city residents can cast votes on some local municipal decisions (such as street names) using a blockchain-based app called Active Citizen. Also this year Switzerland and Ukraine are trying out the versions.

Taking things online might seem like the minimum secure option for the future of the vote.

Blockchain is applied to the vote now because it is often considered intrinsically non-attachable, since its data is stored on multiple servers that all verify the authenticity of the blocks (in the case of Voatz, the votes) and copy them onto the chain of blocks that form a blockchain. These blocks (again, votes!) Should be non-erasable and immutable.

Voatz insists that their technology has been controlled by third party auditors, including a public HackerOne program; a pen test system; and the software company Security Innovation. Unlike the Active Citizen app in Moscow, which, as reported by CityLab in April, has the Moscow government as a "node of authority" and could therefore be considered a more propaganda tool than a boost, the Voatz system it's really decentralized: the West Virginia government does not do it. They have the power to alter votes, they only count them.

And unlike the blockchain model without bitcoin authorization, which allows anyone to act as a verifier, an independent selection process decides who can control the nodes for West Virginia. "Typically, these nodes would include all parties involved in an election such as major political parties, NGOs, non-profit organizations and independent auditors, etc." It can be read in the Voatz FAQs. In other words, official people, not hackers from GRU who connect from their sofas in Russia. (Voatz does not directly comment on this story, citing a busy pre-election season.)

However, many critics of West Virginia's blockchain voting plan are extremely dubious about the idea. There is the word blockchain for a now omnipresent but still largely mysterious technology, often associated with bankruptcy destruction projects. Furthermore, there is the name Voatz . It is "the Theranos of voting!" Software developer Buzz Andersen wrote on Twitter in the days following the launch of Voatz. Code for: imminent and high-tech cheating

It is true that taking things online might seem like the safe option minimum for the future of the vote. Hackers of the electoral system have appeared in almost half of the United States and Russian electoral manipulators are raking up the allegations. (After security architect Kevin Beaumont published a thread critical on Twitter raising an eyebrow at the fact that a former software developer Voatz worked in Russia, the company issued a statement in which he claimed that this staff member was only a Russian intern.)

But others have expressed concerns about the technology itself. According to a new document from the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, Secured the Vote: Protecting American Democracy, the vaunted security measures of the blockchain could come in too late: "If the malware on the device of a voter alters a vote before it ever reaches a blockchain, the immutability of the blockchain fails to provide the desired integrity, and the voter can never know of the change. "[19659005] This was put a little more simply by Joseph Lorenzo Hall, the chief technician of the Center for Democracy and Technology, who told CNN: "It is the internet vote on the horribly safe devices of people , on our horrible networks, on servers that are very difficult to protect without a physical recording of the vote. "

Those fears are not unique to a blockchain-based system, says Ari Juels, professor of technology and computer sciences at Cornell: any voting platform hosted on the Internet would be equally vulnerable. "It's very difficult to protect users' devices," said Juels. "There is a risk that even if the integrity of the voting infrastructure remains intact, users' devices will be hacked or compromised through spear phishing campaigns."

Voatz responds to these criticisms on their website, saying they have made great efforts to ensure that the devices are not compromised in the first place. "Only certain classes of smartphones equipped with the latest security features can be used," reads their FAQ.

Offering more paths for the freeing of voters for members of the army should, on its face, be a popular goal. "There is no one who deserves the right to vote more than the guys out there, and the women who are out there, putting their lives in danger for us," said the Secretary of State of the West Virginia Mac Warner at CNN. [19659005] But the fears about electoral security, both founded and not, have become weapons in a wider political battle over the rights of voters and the deprivation of the right to vote. The Trump administration has consistently raised the issue of unbridled voting fraud without any supporting evidence. "[T] lies is so mesmerizing, it goes off like a fire," wrote Carol Anderson in a recent New York Times op-ed, "so that the irrational fear that someone could vote who should not" t it means hundreds of thousands of people should not be cast. "

When it comes to designing a secure way to vote on the Internet, the stakes are high: even if only a small number of users in the West Virginia blockchain pilot have been violated, potentially undermining trust in the Internet. integrity of the whole system In fact, the fear that our votes are vulnerable can undermine democracy as much as the hacking itself. "The integrity of the elections can be compromised," said Juels, "because people can be tuned to anecdotes about the process that is [compromised]. "

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