Will blockchain take mobile voting mainstream?
While citizens wait in line to cast their vote in the US election, dutifully trusting in the security of the ballot counting system, 2020 could be one of the last times they register their vote at a polling station in person.
But fear of vote-rigging inflamed by leading Republicans and President Donald Trump, who has implied that his loss of the election would be down to a “fraudulent” voting system, has resulted in current US election officials dismissing the use of smartphone voting tech.
Despite this, the future development and testing of applications and cybersecurity mean that by 2024's Presidential election, a large proportion of votes may well be cast using mobile phones.
The technology to manage voting via smartphones already exists and is being piloted in 29 of America’s 3,141 counties. These areas have decreed that some absentee voters can cast their ballots via (a newly developed polling platform) in the current election. Officials in the voter’s jurisdiction are opening lockboxes, printing the paper ballot - thus making an auditable paper trail - and finally running them through optical scanners. The scheme will be a test case regarding the efficiency and reliability of mobile phone voting, which could result in all elections adopting the system in future.
However, some experts are reticent regarding the decision to increase the availability of mobile or online voting for mainstream elections. They cite security risks and vulnerabilities that could occur in the process of transmitting such sensitive information via the internet.
(a politically neutral group) which promotes election integrity, is against the adoption of mobile phone voting, citing recent data breaches of wealthy corporations as evidence that the Internet is simply not secure enough to ensure election fairness.
, President of Verified Voting recently told , that if high-budget corporations could not keep data safe despite huge cybersecurity funding, she was doubtful that poorly-funded organisations could do an effective job. She said, “It begs the question of how these election officials, who do a great job with insufficient resources, are going to keep this safe,” she said.
Though voting software developers disagree, saying their tech can manage a mainstream election without being compromised, a report released by independent testers in March 2020, revealed several vulnerable areas that could potentially be exploited if Voatz became a mainstream voting tool. The 200-page report by Trail of Bits cited a lack of test coverage and documentation, a manually provisioned infrastructure lacking infrastructure-as-code tools and nonstandard cryptographic protocols.
A previous study by MIT also found weaknesses with the app. Voatz developers responded publicly to the MIT findings, saying the study was problematic and that proceeding updates to the system had already eradicated the issues MIT detected.
Future smart voters
However, though mobile phone voting may still have some teething troubles, its almost certainly going to turn mainstream soon. Smartphone voting is convenient. In terms of the US, it allows for the estimated 3mn American citizens living outside the country to vote in elections swiftly and simply. According , approximately 19% of Americans are also living with disabilities. A large majority of those will have compromised mobility. A smartphone voting system could be the answer for people who might otherwise not bother to register their vote.
Mobile app voting systems, like Voatz, rely on blockchain technology, which is usually known for its end-to-end transparency and security. Though used frequently in the latest financial technology software for banking and payment systems, blockchain has been criticised as a safe platform for voting app development.
A recent report by outlines why blockchain technology is currently safer for financial transactions than for election use. It states, "The basic idea of a blockchain is to create an open ledger in which a series of transactions are stored publicly for anybody to verify, while protecting the identity of the individual users. For voting, that should result in a system where anybody could verify the validity of the election, while individual voters’ choices are kept private.”
The report continues, “But voting wouldn’t have the same incentives and disincentives built into the program as the original blockchain, bitcoin. Attacking the cryptocurrency system is more expensive than participating in it and earning rewards in bitcoin, but there is no cost deterrent for voting, so there is no way to dissuade malicious actors from trying to take over the network. Because every vote is valuable, critics fear there is no good way to keep a user’s identity and vote separate.”
Both the possibility of hacking and voting accountability, which a paper trail provides, are central to the smartphone voting debate. However, most smartphones already have biometric identification security either through facial or fingerprint recognition. Therefore, a mobile app voting using blockchain should prove virtually impossible to hack.
However, , executive director of the Centre for Election Innovation and Research, a politically neutral research group in Washington, maintains that voting authenticity remains the primary objective, not the accessibility of votes. Therefore, until the technology can prover otherwise, paper ballot votes provide the most secure pathway to a trusted election outcome. He told , “Making voting more accessible is a laudable goal, but accessibility needs to be balanced with security. It’s important to have an election where winners and losers have confidence that the process came up with the right result.”
New government strategy to put UK ahead in global innovation
The UK government’s plans to increase private sector investment into elevating the UJ’s position in the global innovation race have been outlined in a new Innovation Strategy developed and launched by the business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng. The strategy is part of the government’s “long-term vision” to boost private sector investment in R&D across the UK, enabling tech companies such as mobile networks to create new technologies.
While the private sector is important in boosting R&D spending, the government says that the UK “is still committed” to increasing annual public investment in Research and Development with the aim of reaching a record US$30.2bn (£22bn).
What will the Innovation Strategy allow the UK government to do?
By adopting the Innovation Strategy, the government claims it will be able to achieve several other goals. These include:
- Ensuring government procurement is proactive and supportive, providing a route to market for innovative new products and services
- Consulting on how regulation can ensure that the UK is well-placed to extract the best value from innovation
- Commissioning the Regulatory Horizons Council to consider how best to support innovation through regulation, including looking whether there are a set of high-level guiding principles for regulation that may apply broadly to any sector of innovation
- Introducing new High Potential Individual and Scale-up visa routes, and revitalise the Innovator route to attract and retain high-skilled, globally mobile innovative talent
- Undertaking an independent review to assess the landscape of UK organisations undertaking all forms of research, development and innovation
- Reducing complexity for innovative companies by developing an online finance and innovation hub between Innovate UK and the British Business Bank within the next 12 months
- Expanding IP education programme for researchers and launch International IP Services to bolster innovative companies’ and researchers’ ability to confidently collaborate, export and invest overseas
- Publishing of a new action plan on ‘Standards for the Fourth Industrial Revolution’, promoting standards that enable innovation to flourish
- Investing £200mn (US$275mn) through the British Business Bank’s Life Sciences Investment Programme to target the growth-stage funding gap faced by UK life science companies
- Supporting 30,000 senior managers of small and medium-sized businesses through Help to Grow: Management to boost their business’s performance, resilience, and long-term growth
Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said in a statement that “the UK can look back on a proud history of changing the world through innovation. From the industrial revolution to the vaccine development of the past year, the impact on our everyday lives is undeniable.
“That spirit of discovery is still alive in this country today, but we have not always turned our genius for innovation into jobs and companies here in Britain.
“The countries that secure leadership in such transformational technologies will lead the world, enjoying unrivalled growth, security and prosperity for decades to come – and it’s our job to ensure the UK keeps pace with the global innovation race”.
The organisation added that through the long-term plan, it aims to “rekindle our country’s flame of innovation and discovery”, and to aid businesses in taking the “vast opportunities” brought about by innovation.
“If we get this right, we can build the foundations for the new industries of tomorrow, and ensure British firms are at the front of the pack to turn world-leading science into new products and services that are successful in international markets”, the organisation concluded.
To implement the strategy, the government plans to work with universities and research organisations with five projects receiving part of £127mn capital injection through the Strength in Places Fund, which is delivered by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).
In addition to the Strength in Places Fund, £25 million of funding for the Connecting Capability Fund will help drive further economic growth through university-business innovation.