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Smartphone Voting Opens Up Possibilities, But Is It Secure?

The election day tradition of casting a ballot at a makeshift polling place – usually a church, library or rec center – may one day be a thing of the past.

Of course, advances such as mail-in ballots have already reduced the number of voters standing in line on election day. But technological advances soon may have voters choosing candidates on their handheld devices.

Advocates foresee increased voter participation and tamper-resistant elections. Detractors see a host of security nightmares.

Despite the lack of consensus, mobile voting already is getting a trial run in the U.S.

Voting With a Smartphone

West Virginia residents who are active-duty military and stationed overseas will have the option of voting in November’s midterm elections via a mobile app developed by a small Boston-based company called Voatz.

According to CNN, a user must submit a photo of his or her government-issued identification plus a video of his or her face. Facial recognition software used by the app is supposed to ensure that the photo and video are of the same person. If approved, a ballot can then be cast over the app. The ballots, which Voatz says will be anonymous, are stored in a blockchain.

West Virginia first used Voatz’s app in May’s primary elections, when active-duty overseas voters from two West Virginia counties were invited to cast ballots using the app, according to a story by their local newspaper The Herald-Dispatch. Although few voters reportedly used the app, Warner’s office said that four post-election audits revealed no issues with its performance.

How Does Blockchain Voting Work?

Voatz explains how blockchain works for voting in the FAQ section of its website. Designed to work with cryptocurrency Bitcoin, blockchain turns voting into a transaction.

Qualified voters receive a mobile ballot from their election jurisdiction. The ballot contains a digital token cryptographically linked to each choice on the ballot. Once verified by the network, the token/votes are subtracted from the voter’s ledger and credited to the candidate’s ledger.

Blockchain proponents claim that its design prevents any vote tampering – online voting advocacy group Follow My Vote says on its website that blockchain technology is “100% secure.” Among the features said to ensure this is the fact that blockchain’s ledger is not housed centrally but is spread across all participating computers or devices. This eliminates a central target on which a hacker could focus efforts. Also, once the ballot becomes part of the blockchain, any attempt to alter it will be visible to all other computers on the network, which will then reject the computer attempting to make the change.

Security Experts Express Doubts

There’s plenty of enthusiasm for online and mobile voting, but security experts counter that with many grave concerns. Among the detractors is Joseph Lorenzo Hall, chief technologist for the Center for Democracy and Technology, who calls the idea “horrific.”

“It’s internet voting on people’s horribly secured devices, over our horrible networks, to servers that are very difficult to secure without a physical paper record of the vote,” Hall told CNN.

The use of blockchain doesn’t ease the concerns of other experts.

“The fact that someone is throwing around the blockchain buzzword does nothing to make this more secure,” Avi Rubin, technical director of the Information Security Institute at Johns Hopkins University, told Wired. “Voting from an app on a mobile phone is as bad an idea as voting online from a computer,” Rubin said.

John Sammons, director of the digital forensics and information assurance program at Marshall University, likes blockchain technology in theory, but told The Herald-Dispatch he’s less sure about it being employed on a larger scale.

He also notes that cybercriminals are notorious for foiling security measures.

“Security is relative,” Sammons said, adding that “It all depends on who the adversary is and how bad they want in.”

Even if a vote is secure within the blockchain, that doesn’t prevent manipulation before it enters the chain. “In fact, there is an entire industry in viruses to manipulate cryptocurrency transactions before they enter the blockchain, and there is nothing to prevent the use of similar viruses to change the vote,” Poorvi Vora, a computer scientist and election security expert at George Washington University, said in the same Wired article.

Facial recognition software doesn’t get many votes of confidence, either. Marian Schneider, president of advocacy group Verified Voting, worries that the software can be fooled using videos found on the internet. Also, The New York Times reports that Joy Buolamwini, a researcher at the M.I.T. Media Lab, found bias in tested software: Facial recognition was 99% accurate for white males in her tests, while it dropped by as much as 35% when asked to identify black females.

Some Answers May Come in November

Despite security concerns from experts, West Virginia officials remain enthusiastic and express confidence in Voatz’s ability to keep voting safe, secure and anonymous.

West Virginia’s Secretary of State Mac Warner frames the argument in terms of support for the troops.

“There is nobody that deserves the right to vote any more than the guys that are out there, and the women that are out there, putting their lives on the line for us,” Warner told CNN. Troops can already vote via paper ballot, a practice the mobile voting experiment won’t interfere with, Warner said.

The results of November’s voting likely will impact how quickly mobile voting catches on, or if it does.

Despite the security concerns, West Virginia deserves credit for being willing to give mobile voting a try, said MIT political science professor Charles Stewart III.

“There is something to be said sometimes for small scale pilots where we can learn the trade-offs,” Stewart told CNN.

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