Data Privacy and Security

Online voting presents cybersecurity conundrum

Voting plays a big role in any modern-day democracy. But the fact is, this process hasn’t changed very much over the decades. In many countries, to make your voice heard, you simply head to your local polling station and mark a cross on a piece of paper. While some would say that this works fine, there are others who deem it outdated. The question is, where is online voting?

Governmental and public sector systems have already heavily invested in the latest technology, although this hasn’t extended to voting and elections. Countries such as Sweden, Romania and Switzerland have tested electronic voting systems in the past, and Estonia adopted this method for national elections in 2007.

The biggest benefit of online voting is, no doubt, convenience. A study by Broadband Genie, published in 2015, found that 60 per cent of non-voters would vote if they could do so online.

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Across the political spectrum, opinions vary with regards to online voting. Although there are clear benefits, there are also a plethora of challenges. Security, by far, is the biggest. Online voting may result in increased turnout rates, but what’s to stop hackers from hacking into systems and impacting the winning vote? Security, then, is fundamental.


A new voting system

There’s no denying that online voting systems would bring a range of benefits to democracies right around the world, but security is a big issue. Going back to the 2016 US Presidential Election, Russian hackers were able to get into the email accounts of top Democrats. Imagine the impact a cyberattack on an electronic voting platform would have.  

However, a team of mathematicians from Université Paris-Saclay’s University of Versailles, Inpher, Gemalto and CEA LIST have developed what they say is one of the world’s most secure electronic voting systems. Inspired by existing platforms, the researchers have come up with a simple, transparent scheme that confirms the correctness of the final election result, guarantees privacy and allows verifiability.

The scheme, they say, could become universal worldwide. Because it follows a set of simple components, no one is able to retrieve the vote of a particular person. Their system also publicly detects any attempt to cheat. Llaria Chillotti, who has been working on this project, says: “Designing security for electronic based systems is much more intricate that traditional paper-based systems. Until now, all designs were based on assumptions that could be compromised by advanced quantum computers.

“Our design is the first step to achieving a quantum resistant e-voting scheme, and our scheme differs from existing e-voting protocols that have been used for medium-scale elections by changing the underlying design with a lattice-based fully homomorphic encryption design.”


Impact on democratic order

In many countries today, there’s still a reliance on traditional voting systems, mainly because there’s no risk of cyberattacks. For citizens living abroad, online voting would be particularly convenient. Alex Blakoe, who works at Newcastle-based medtech startup JimJam, has dual British/French citizenship. He was eligible to vote in this year’s French election, but didn’t have the opportunity to vote electronically. As a result, he had to travel to London in order to cast his vote. This, he believes, affects the democratic process.

“The two-stage Presidential election system lends itself very nicely to electronic voting. The process of voting on one weekend and then having to vote on the following one again (and then in the subsequent National Assembly vote, typically a month after the Presidentials) could deter people from repeatedly engaging in their democratic duty, so the convenience of doing it online would no doubt increase turnout,” he tells us.

“However, shortly before the election I received an email which said that, due to the heightened risk of cyberattacks, I was no longer eligible to vote electronically. Given that I currently work and spend most of my time in Newcastle, I looked for my closest voting booth - Leeds. Instead, I opted to vote in London both weekends, taking the opportunity to visit my family.”

In his opinion, online voting is the future, but there aren’t sufficient security procedures in place to fight cyber criminals. “I believe that voting online is the future, but it is not suitable at present. There are, of course, concerns about fraud in 'regular' voting methods (in person or via post); however, the risk of cyberattack appears to be too great. And even if the risk itself is not that high, the perception of this risk is just as dangerous,” he concludes.


Security is paramount

Gemalto, an international digital security firm, helped to deliver e-voting solutions in Estonia. Now, online voting is a central part of the country’s democratic process. Stephen Wright, vice president of government at the firm, is a huge believer in electronic election systems. He suggests that they can increase voter participation and says that powerful security is key to their success in modern democracies.

“Unsurprisingly, there’s evidence to suggest electronic voting increases voter participation. WebRoots Democracy claims an online vote would increase the turnout of 18 to 24-year-olds to 70 per cent. The critical thing to remember is to ensure any new method is secure, and makes electoral fraud harder, if not impossible, to achieve,” he says.

“A successful digital voting method may involve the voter using a trusted electronic ID such as a digital credential in a secure mobile phone app, or even an eVoting card. One great example of successful online voting is in Estonia, where all citizens have been able to vote online since 2007. Through iVote technology, secured by our company Gemalto, an anonymous envelope encrypts an individual’s ballot.

“When the voter signs in to cast their vote, their personal data (or outer envelope) is added to the initial encrypted vote. To ensure a voter’s true will is reflected in their vote they can vote again electronically during advance polls, overriding their past answer rather than duplicating their vote. Crucially, the encrypted vote and digital signature are kept apart, meaning it would be difficult to identify a voter and link them with a particular choice, adding an extra layer of privacy.”

That said, he’s very aware much of the threats here. He explains that public scrutiny is likely to increase over the next few years, but is still adamant that online voting is the way forward.  

“Of course, the digital world poses challenges as well as opportunities to elections. We’ve seen accusations of Russian interference in recent US and French elections, as well as warnings to politicians from the National Cyber Security Centre about the risk of hacking. In light of these claims, scrutiny over results is likely to increase. But using the internet to improve turnout and protect against fraud, if done securely, is surely a must-have in the highly digital UK.”

Like anything in the technology world, online voting has pluses and minuses. On the face of things, citizens want an easy way to cast their votes. But at the same time, they’re mindful of the security risks. If online voting is to become the norm in the foreseeable future, then governments and companies need to ensure that systems are secure. This is already beginning to happen, although it could be awhile before e-voting truly takes off.


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Nicholas Fearn

Nicholas is a technology journalist from the Welsh valleys. His work has been featured on Engadget, Lifehacker, Gizmodo, TechRadar, The Next Web, Forbes, Computer Weekly, Computing, Mail Online, The Telegraph and many other media outlets. In addition, he edits Tech Dragons, a publication covering STEM in Wales.

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