The West Virginians in 29 countries voted for mobile, in the largest blockchain-based voting test ever


House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) Appears in a campaign event on Monday. (Tannen Maury / EPA-EFE / Shutterstock)

About 140 Western Virginians living abroad in 29 countries voted for the elections in an unprecedented pilot project that involves remote voting via mobile devices, according to state officials.

The pilot throughout the state, which covers 24 of the 55 counties of West Virginia, uses a mixture of smartphones, facial recognition and the same technology that supports bitcoin – the blockchain – in an attempt to create a secure and large-scale way for members of the service, Peace Corps volunteers or other Americans living abroad to participate in the mid-term elections.

West Virginia is the first state to run a blockchain-based voting project of this magnitude, state officials said. And if adopted more widely, technology could make it easier to vote and potentially reduce long queues to polls. But many security experts fear that the technology may not be ready for wider use and may even contain vulnerabilities that risk the integrity of the election.

By the end of Tuesday, electoral officials are expecting more votes to reach digitally from as many as five additional countries. The voters have already presented the votes of Albania, Botswana, Egypt, Mexico and Japan, among others, said Michael Queen, deputy chief of staff of the secretary of state of West Virginia, Mac Warner. The son of Warner, who is in the army and stationed abroad, also participated in the pilot, said the queen.

"He's already been very successful," Queen said. "We are very happy with the participation."

Up to 300,000 US voters located abroad requested the votes in the 2016 elections but did not submit their votes, Queen said, a figure that suggests that many Americans face difficulties in participating in the democratic process.

West Virginia tried to solve the problem by turning to Voatz, a company that in January received $ 2.2 million from Medici Ventures, a blockchain-focused investment company owned by the online retailer

The Voatz app was used on a limited basis in a number of other settings, such as the student competitions and the May primary of West Virginia. But election day still represents the most important test of the company.

To vote, voters must first register through the app by uploading an image of their driving license or other photo ID card. So the app instructs them to send a short video of their face. The facial recognition technology provided by the iPhone or the Elector's Android device matches the video with the ID of the photo and the personal information on the ID is combined with the registration database of West Virginia voters . Once the verification is complete, voters can make their selections and confirm their vote by fingerprint or facial recognition.

Hilary Braseth, director of Voatz's product design, said that in addition to using verification technology, the company also has the ability for human operators to manually review the information sent. The company does not store personal data once the identity of the voter has been confirmed, he said.

Votes are stored on a private blockchain – essentially a database where records are protected using complex computational algorithms – and unlocked by county officials at the end of the polls.

"When they take their votes from the blockchain, they will print immediately on a piece of paper – just like the same aspect of what voters are voting physically on election day," said Braseth. "And then those paper forms will be inserted into the state-level tabulation machines on the ground."

The overseas voters who used Voatz will receive an anonymous copy of the vote they presented at a distance; another copy will be made available to the Warner office for control purposes. It is expected that several independent external auditors will spend an evaluation of the pilot project in the following months and with a report likely due to mid-spring.

Two voters have so far reported difficulties in using the app, Queen said, but the process proceeded smoothly. In response to security questions, Queen said that West Virginia has no intention of extending the mobile vote beyond its relatively small overseas population.

"Secretary Warner never and will never claim that this is a mainstream vote solution," Queen said.

Voting with Voatz is probably safer than sending emails for absentee, said Maurice Turner, an electoral security expert at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington think tank. And because the system is based on facial recognition technology produced by Apple and other controlled diverters, the verification method seems valid. But, he said, it remains much less secure to present a paper card in person.

Although human workers could analyze the identification of photos and videos sent by users, this does not prevent someone from attempting to impersonate a voter by digitally manipulating the ID of the photo before uploading it, Turner said.

"This is not authenticating the voter." He is authenticating the person who is using the app, "he said.

Other security experts have stated that simply by introducing a mobile device connected to the Internet in the process increases the basic risk of hacking or interception.

And despite the current use of cryptography to keep secret ballots sent remotely on the blockchain, future technologies that could defeat that protection could end up unmasking voters' identities and choices.

However, Turner said, as many aspects of consumer life become digital, it is not surprising that voters can expect the same from their engagement with the civic process.

"We are coming at a time when the average voter is someone who has grown up with digital devices," he said. "If we can accept it, then we can plan accordingly." If we assume that voters will move to mobile devices, we can start thinking about what policies are, what the rules are to be taken, to ensure that this happens and what security measures they need be designed on these platforms ".

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