Blockchain- next step to ensure internet voting’s credibility?

On: September 23, 2018
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About Hanna Jemmer


Tsukuba -a Japanese city- is testing a blockchain based voting system to encourage citizens to vote on different municipal projects (O’Brian). It is a welcome move, a move that at first sight allows for a smoother and more secure democratic process. But is technology making it easier and more secure to participate in political decisions and are there other aspects to consider when technology and democratic process intersect? This is what I address.

Internet voting has been used in other countries and regions too- for example, internet voting in local, general and European Parliament elections in Estonia has been possible since 2005 (Vassil & Solvak). Considering the current case (Tsukuba), the innovation here is the use of blockchain technology. This should increase the level of security in respect to anonymization (I get to vote in secret) and verification (I can make sure that my vote has been recorded correctly) of votes. Before describing the new features that blockchain contributes to internet voting, it’s first perhaps important to discuss why voting online is positive (if so) and the differences compared to real life voting.

Internet voting removes physical and time barriers, internet voting can potentially increase the number of voters and thus increase the legitimacy of the votes that are cast. More broadly, online inclusion practices are seen to increase citizen empowerment and participation (Amichai-Hamburger et al 1784-85). However, internet voting only increases formal equality as voting on internet depends on access to internet and digital skills (Vassil & Solvak 2016).

How does blockchain help improve internet voting? For a democratic system to function, it is necessary to ensure that elections are free and fair, this includes internet voting. Use of blockchain technology is closely linked to ensuring security and reliability based on its technical set up. As explained by Violino: “Within a blockchain mechanism, data is secured via cryptography and new transactions are linked to previous ones. That makes it virtually impossible for anyone to alter older records without first needing to change subsequent ones” (Violino). Blockchain is therefore seen as a security guarantee, its main feature is that there can be no tampering with votes, that internet voting is secure and results credible (Osgood 9-10).

The US presidential elections serve as a warning example as there are claims that Russia interfered in the 2016 elections by compromising voter registration databases, hacking into emails, influencing voters via social media (Kirby; Heath). As said, ensuring free and fair elections is central to a democracy, and technology (either analog or digital) should ensure that. Therefore, when elections don’t follow these principles (in analog or digitally), the results of elections and democratic principles become questionable.

There are authors questioning internet voting security. They stress potential threats of hacking that can undermine the election result and with that the whole democratic process (Springall et al. 710-712). In the analysis they describe different security risks of internet voting, mainly how the Estonian internet voting system is potentially susceptible to dishonest insiders or state sponsored hacker attacks injecting malware to either attack the voter’s computer or the servers where votes are collected and counted (ibid). Based on several tests of blockchain voting, it is assumed that blockchain could overcome these obstacles by both ensuring anonymity and verifiability- the two somewhat contradicting principles of voting (Osgood 13-14).

Here I see the need to widen the scope of the discussion and include the analog sphere. As Springall et al note, in their view it’s better to stick with paper ballots (Springall et al 713) and therefore it’s important to investigate whether paper based voting ensures higher security. There have been plenty of cases of vote rigging (vote buying, voter intimidation etc) without the use of computers or internet voting. The (alleged) ballot stuffing at Russian polling stations during presidential elections in 2018 is a case in point (Guardian News video below).

Does it actually matter whether we use technology to vote when the voter itself can be manipulated before the elections? Be it bots, e-mail hackers or campaigns supported by foreign donors, it seems to be easier to influence voters rather than hack internet voting systems, especially when we talk about blockchain where every alteration in the system leaves a trace. Sure, it’s considered unethical providing the voter with false information and fake news but presenting false claims can be done directly as well (Nigel Farage claiming that staying in the EU costs 350m pounds per week for the UK). (McCann & Morgan) Therefore, it seems that technology (new media) is another channel to direct voters. What is different with internet persuasion, is the magnitude. As argued by Fogg (2003), computers have certain advantages compared to humans. Computers are more persistent, offer greater anonymity, manage huge volumes of data, use many modalities to influence and go where humans cannot go (Fogg 7). And these advantages can also be used to manipulate voters’ preferences. The bots can persistently target voters in places where politicians themselves can’t go (homes) and targeting can be done by using data to predict which voters are more susceptible to political influencing.

Therefore, the unethical persuasion mentality does not so much seem to come from only the use of technology but the real life allows it too. Perhaps here, an explanation on morality and technology by Latour helps to clarify what I mean. He states that morality and technology are not separate, they exist together. They have gone through different phases of innovation where each phase has added its value set (of the time) to the technology (Latour 254) and therefore technology operates on norms and values accepted by the majority (in the past and the present).

In conclusion, blockchain technology sets out to resolve the issue of secure voting, it aims to guarantee both anonymity and verifiability of voting. Still, how voters form their preferences and vote is a much more complex question. Increasing critical and analytical thinking in making voting decisions is not what blockchain is for and therefore it can never ensure an outcome that has not been influenced in some way (by digital or analog means). However, it tries to ensure internet voting’s internal credibility and there it seems to have great potential.


Works cited

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