As the world waits to learn what is contained within the Mueller report, the culmination of Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, it seems appropriate to expand on last week’s column about the security of electronic voting systems.
I recently spoke to Nimit Sawhney, CEO and cofounder of Voatz, the blockchain-based, mobile voting software provider, whose technology West Virginia piloted during last year’s general midterm election. Sawhney came up with the idea for the project with his brother when the two competed in—and won—a hackathon at Austin’s SXSW festival in 2014. Since then, Sawhney has formally established a company, based in Boston, to develop the product.
Voatz’s technology is making inroads. Sawhney’s 14-person team recently won over Denver, Colo., as the second testing ground for its voting system. The city is trialling the app in its May 7th municipal election, early voting for which starts—today!
I asked Sawhney why he decided to incorporate a blockchain into his system. He says it’s so that IT administrators within and outside his company can’t manipulate or delete records at will. Voatz uses so-called permissioned ledgers, meaning only authorized parties can operate them. In this case, the voting database is distributed across 32 computing nodes running the Linux Foundation’s Hyperledger Fabric and Hyperledger Sawtooth software on machines hosted by Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure. Voatz stewards the nodes alongside select nonprofits that act as independent monitors, a small cadre Voatz hopes to expand to include other major stakeholders—political parties, media entities, and others—over time.
While Sawhney says he’s excited about the potential of public blockchains, like Ethereum, to become part of the infrastructure of elections, his prospective customers are more wary. “Early feedback we received from election officials was that they were very uncomfortable with nodes running in potentially unfriendly part of world,” Sawhney tells me.
Sawhney believes blockchains can imbue the electoral process with greater transparency. The technology “gives citizens the ability to audit an election,” he says, noting that ballots submitted through Voatz return digital receipts that allow voters to verify their intentions. “You have a sense of trust that is backed by irrefutable mathematics rather than somebody telling you, These are the results and you must believe them,” Sawhney says.
Electronic voting systems are not bulletproof, however. Threats resulting from vulnerabilities, hackers, and physical coercion raise grave security concerns. Yet, conversely, these systems bear obvious benefits. They’re much more accessible than paper-based ballots, at least to smartphone owners. And they hold promise for enfranchising citizens who are disabled, traveling abroad, or serving in the military.
Despite the advantages, many security professionals find it impossible to overlook the risks. Sawhney understands critics’ objections. “No system is 100% safe,” he concedes. But, to this, he adds an addendum: “That’s true of paper-based systems as well.”
“We realize there are lots of opposing forces—people who hate and disapprove of what we’re doing,” Sawhney says. But, he continues, “we feel this is really important and needs to be done for progress to happen.”
All technologies are double-edged swords. The trick lies in blunting the blade when one falls into the hands of adversaries.
Besides, if Estonia can do it, maybe the U.S. can too.