Utah County Becomes 3rd US Jurisdiction To Launch Blockchain Voting (#GotBitcoin?)
Utah County follows West Virginia and Colorado. Utah County Becomes 3rd US Jurisdiction To Launch Blockchain Voting (#GotBitcoin?)
One of the 29 counties of the U.S. state of Utah, Utah County will enable eligible voters to participate in the upcoming municipal primary election through a special application on their smartphones, according to an official press release on July 23.
As such, the state of Utah has become the third state to allow blockchain-powered electronic voting in the country after West Virginia and Colorado.
New blockchain-powered voting pilot continues till Election Day, August 13
The new e-voting pilot is made in collaboration between the Utah County Elections Division, mobile elections platform Voatz, Tusk Philanthropies, and the National Cybersecurity Center.
According to the announcement, voting started on June 28 and continues till Election Day, August 13. The pilot voters include active-duty military, their eligible dependents and overseas voters, the report notes.
In March 2019, Denver, the capital and most populous city in the U.S. state of Colorado, was reported to become the second U.S. jurisdiction to pilot a blockchain-powered mobile voting platform in its upcoming municipal election. The announcement came almost one year after the first initiative of this kind in the U.S. — the launch of mobile voting solution in West Virginia primaries and then midterm elections in March 2018.
Recently, Overstock’s blockchain subsidiary Medici Ventures led a $7 million funding round in Voatz platform.
Blockchain Voting Systems — Can Democracy Rely on Them?
At the beginning of October, a story released by CNN claimed that a student affiliated with the University of Michigan attempted to hack into West Virginia’s blockchain-based voting system called Voatz. As per the report, the FBI is now actively investigating the matter and is looking to authenticate the veracity of these claims.
Voatz is a smartphone-based app that was used by the West Virginia government last year to collect ballots from its citizens that were either living overseas at the time or were stationed abroad for military purposes. The aforementioned disclosure was made by West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, who claimed to have identified certain activity that he believes was geared toward gaining illegal access into the voting app’s mainframe operational module. In this regard, the Voatz app makes use of a plethora of personal ID-verification layers, such as facial recognition, thumbprints and voter-verified ballot receipts.
As a result of these developments, Warner recently went into damage control mode and stated that all of the digital safeguards (that had been created for the Voatz app) had worked as designed and that no votes had been altered, impacted, viewed or in any way tampered with.
However, to better understand the frailties of blockchain-based voting systems, Cointelegraph reached out to Barry Gitarts, one of the implementing developers of the voting decentralized application (DApp) for the Status network. He said that it has recently become popular to attempt to implement quadratic-based voting, even though it has some flaws:
“The biggest unsolved issue with these types of votes is that in order for the vote to not be prone to manipulation there has be to identity tied to the voters, otherwise some voters can get a disproportionate amount of voting power by splitting their tokens among multiple addresses and voting with them.”
Another interesting point of view was put forth by John Lloyd, the chief technology officer for cybersecurity firm Casaba Security. In his opinion, the question is not really about the reliability of blockchain-based voting systems in general but rather the transparency of the Voatz app itself.
Cointelegraph spoke with Ivan Ivanitskiy, chief analytics officer at software solution firm SmartDec, who said in an email conversation:
“The very fact that the developer of the system cannot publicly prove that no vote was stolen (if this is the case) means that the whole idea of using blockchain is flawed. The killing feature of a blockchain for voting is publicity: in a correctly built system, anyone should be able to check that the results were calculated correctly.”
Lloyd told Cointelegraph that a number of researchers have found abnormalities with the program and that the company responsible for running the platform has not shared any of Voatz’s attestation documents or audit summaries publicly. He further pointed out that the Voatz blockchain is essentially a private hyperledger network that has less than 10 nodes — which led him to believe that the system is no more useful than a traditional database. Lloyd then went on to add:
“A blockchain running only provisioned nodes still needs those nodes to be exposed to the internet for people to vote. People attempting to compromise public facing applications is routine for any web application. The FBI is involved because of the target. You can’t ‘change votes’ after the fact. The target would have to be the voter’s mobile phone and then only when they have authenticated and are ready to vote.”
Ivanitskiy also mentioned that this past September, a blockchain voting system was used for the city of Moscow’s parliamentary election. The results statistically differed from the in-person voting count, which meant that the overall result was a bit distorted. Ivanitskiy then added:
“The blockchain part worked well, the problem was in the identification part. Blockchain is great for voting; however, identification is a complicated problem. We should not use any electronic voting system unless we are sure that identification works correctly.”
Blockchain In Voting Systems
It is important to distinguish between blockchain technology and the applications that make use of this framework. Simply put, blockchain allows for the creation of a datastore that is tamper-evident, and by distributing multiple copies of this tamper-evident datastore, the information automatically becomes highly resistant to the nefarious activities of third-party individuals.
This is because if one copy of the datastore is altered (in any shape or form), the change immediately becomes visible to all of the other participants of the network. Not only that, once an alteration is detected, it can be overwritten with one of the many copies that are not corrupted to bring the information back to its original state. To further elaborate on the subject, Jeff Stollman, a principal consultant at Rocky Mountain Technical Marketing, provided Cointelegraph with some insights:
“The problem with blockchain voting is the front-end application that manages the new data that is added to the blockchain. Blockchain technology does not stop someone from hacking the front-end application and altering the data (e.g., votes) before it is added to the blockchain. For example, it a fraudster is able to impersonate a legitimate voter (because he has stolen the voter’s credentials), he can vote in place of the legitimate voter. This has nothing to do with the blockchain.”
In relation to Voatz, since there has been no solid evidence to prove that the infiltration attempt in question was successful, it might be safe to assume that the hacker was seeking to access certain areas of data input associated with the app rather than the blockchain itself.
Additionally, since Voatz reportedly makes use of a permissioned blockchain consisting of a relatively small number of verifying nodes rather than a permissionless ecosystem, John Wagster — the co-chair of blockchain legal team Frost Brown Todd — believes the latter would be better suited for voting-related activities, as each transaction would need to be verified by a larger number of participants, adding that:
“No system is fool-proof, but the security in the Voatz application seems to have held up nicely even though it was designed for a permissioned blockchain. This looks more like an attempted break in than an actual break in.”
Was The Voatz Incident A One-Off Thing?
A pertinent question that is bound to arise as a result of the aforementioned incident is whether or not more blockchain-based voting systems could be compromised in the near future. Virtually all of the so-called hacks related to this domain are not security lapses of the blockchains. Instead, they are hacks of the data or data relays that connect to the central blockchain ecosystem. On the subject, Wagster told Cointelegraph:
“Voting applications are actually an excellent use case for blockchain technology because they allow transparent, verifiable interactions between non-trusting parties.”
A similar sentiment was echoed by Henry Ly, project manager at cyber security and technology company OccamSec. In a conversation with Cointelegraph, he said that even though blockchain-based voting systems need additional verification protocols in terms of an assessment from a security vulnerability standpoint (as is highlighted by some of the blockchain hacks that have occurred recently), incidents such as these are nothing new. Every new technology, in his view, regularly goes through infiltration bids.
Ly further pointed out that hacking attempts are a daily occurrence on blockchain apps, but that doesn’t mean that such offerings don’t possess any long-term promise. He went on to add:
“Its highly impossible to build ‘foolproof systems.’ Given enough time and resources everything and anything can be broken into. Electronic voting and blockchain voting has a lot of problems but it holds some promise.”
Government-Related Blockchain Use Cases Continue To Increase
Even though critics continue to harp on the vulnerabilities related to blockchain tech, its global use cases continue to grow steadily. For example, Æternity, a decentralized application-focused blockchain venture, recently entered into an agreement with the Uruguay Digital Party in order to create a new platform that will allow Uruguayans to participate in a variety of local political decisions in a transparent, decentralized manner.
Similarly, the United Kingdom’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) announced last year that it had successfully completed a pilot program using blockchain to track the distribution of meat within the region.
Blockchain Voting is Vulnerable to Hacking and Low-Quality Data: Research
Nir Kshetri, a professor of management at the University of North Carolina, has suggested that before blockchain-based voting can be considered safe and trustworthy, some major issues must be resolved.
In an article published on Oct. 18, Kshetri claims that “small-scale tests run so far have identified problems and vulnerabilities in the digital systems and government administrative procedures” that must be solved before adopting the technology.
Hard to audit
Per the report, such systems need to verify voters’ identities — often by analyzing a portrait photo or video with facial recognition software. According to Kshetri, contemporary voting tokens are anonymous and cannot be used to trace anyone’s identity. He also noted that many of the previous tests involved informal ballots such as community projects and student government groups.
Kshetri also voiced concerns that “even experts don’t have a way to identify every possible irregularity in online voting.” On the other hand, he points out that paper-based voting is well-understood and easy to verify and audit.
One major issue is identity verification since various secure keys require large amounts of computing power to verify. Because of this, for instance, the initially assigned keys were found to be easy to hack during the last elections in Moscow.
Experts also fear that devices used to vote could be compromised or that facial recognition systems might make mistakes or get tricked by hackers. Lastly, proprietary systems like the one developed by blockchain voting startup Voatz do not allow to verify whether the votes were cast accurately.
Testing On A Small Scale
That being said, in November 2018 multiple election officials in the United States allowed members of the military stationed overseas to vote electronically. In the same month, 144 voters living abroad have been approved by West Virginia’s authorities to cast ballots from 31 different countries by means of an app developed by Voatz.
The state reportedly plans to continue and expand the trial in the 2020 presidential election.
Also, 119 voters who were overseas used Voatz’s system to vote during Denver’s municipal primary elections in May.
The last — and biggest — example of blockchain voting test provided by the article is the one used at the beginning of September during the city council elections in Moscow. That being said, out of the city’s 20 electoral precincts, only three allowed users to vote via the Internet because of security concerns.
As Cointelegraph reported on Oct. 18, two state counties in the U.S. are implementing blockchain-based mobile voting in the special elections in November.
Two More US Jurisdictions Launch Blockchain-Based Mobile Voting
Two state counties in the United States are implementing blockchain-based mobile voting in the special elections in November.
On Oct. 18, the nonprofit Tusk Philanthropies announced its partnership with Jackson and Umatilla Counties in Oregon to pilot the mobile elections platform Voatz. The pilot offers eligible voters to cast their votes using their smartphones, which are secured through blockchain and facial recognition technology.
Pilot Participants Are Mostly Servicemembers Overseas
The pilot is only available to a small and select group of voters, allowing servicemembers overseas, their eligible dependents and other overseas voters to cast their ballots via the mobile app, which was developed by Tusk Philanthropies.
Dan Lonai, Director of Umatilla County Administrative Services, said that the pilot aims to expand voter participation and make it easier for citizens to exercise their right to vote.
This latest e-voting pilot is a collaboration between the Oregon counties, mobile elections platform Voatz, Tusk Philanthropies and the National Cybersecurity Center.
Other U.S. Jurisdictions Have Piloted Blockchain-Based Voting
West Virginia was the first state to offer blockchain-based mobile voting in a federal election through the Voatz platform. Since then, Tusk Philanthropies has partnered with the City of Denver, Colorado, and Utah County, Utah, who all conducted successful mobile voting pilots. CEO and founder of Tusk Philanthropies Bradley Tusk said:
“Jackson and Umatilla Counties just made history as the first in Oregon to give voters the ability to vote in the same way they conduct most of their other business – on their phones.
Ultimately, giving everyone the opportunity to use mobile voting means we can dramatically expand turnout and loosen the grip on power by special interests and extreme ideologues on both sides.”
Blockchain Could Improve Voter Participation
Cointelegraph previously reported that Tusk Philanthropies wants to use blockchain technology to address the problem of low voter turnout in the American electoral system. This will improve political representation and subsequently, the quality of government, according to Tusk. Sheila Nix, president of Tusk Philanthropies, told Cointelegraph:
“Blockchain is the most secure option that exists right now but we are vendor and technology agnostic and are open to new solutions in the future. We think there is a lot of growth potential for blockchain-based voting — especially due to the auditability features.”
Indian University Students Create Blockchain-Based System for Online Voting
A group of students from an Indian university has created a blockchain-based voting system that enables voters to cast their ballots online.
The voting system was developed by three students from Malla Reddy Engineering College for Women, local business and finance publication The Hindu BusinessLine reported on Oct. 21. The impetus behind the idea is to eliminate voting challenges in urban areas like long queues at polling centers.
The system was tested in gated communities — walled communities that consist of small residential streets and include shared amenities — and reportedly demonstrated a high level of security and resistance to tampering.
Blockchain Gains Traction In Voting Systems Around The World
Blockchain deployment in voting is gaining traction as various countries around the world have been experimenting with the technology, primarily aiming to bring more transparency and expand voter participation. Earlier in October, two counties in the United States announced that they will implement blockchain-based mobile voting in special elections in November 2019.
The Uruguayan Digital Party has also embraced blockchain through a partnership with the decentralized, application-focused blockchain Æternity. The partnership aims to build a new system whereby citizens and members of the Digital Party can participate in various political decisions in a transparent and decentralized manner.
However, Nir Kshetri, a professor of management at the University of North Carolina, questioned the readiness of blockchain technology for voting processes. Kshetri claimed that “small-scale tests run so far have identified problems and vulnerabilities in the digital systems and government administrative procedures” that must be solved before fully adopting the technology.
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