Will blockchain e-voting system help or disrupt election integrity?

Chennai: The Election Commission (EC) made heads turn when it announced its collaboration with IIT-Madras ‘to work on a new technology which will allow electors to vote from far away cities without going to designated polling station of their respective constituencies’.

Senior Deputy Election Commissioner Sandeep Saxena, explaining the ‘block chain’ technology involved in the project, said, ‘The concept is a two-way electronic voting system, in a controlled environment, on white-listed IP devices on dedicated internet lines, enabled with biometric devices and a web camera.’ He also made it clear that ‘voters will have to reach a designated venue during a pre-decided period of time to be able to use this facility’ and it doesn’t mean ‘voting from home’. The project is at present in research and development stage with an aim to develop a prototype, another official said.

Tech explained
Several governments across the globe are taking steps to enhance e-voting system. Block chain is one major tech which officials believe it can offer fool proof platform for voting. For the uninitiated, Blockchain is a growing list of records called ‘blocks’ that are linked using cryptography, shared across a vast network of computers. Each block contains a cryptographic hash of previous block, timestamp and transaction data. It is difficult to change once a record is added to the chain. The network regularly checks to ensure that all copies of database are same.

Chain of doubt
Ever since the announcement by EC, scientists and cyber security experts took on Twitter to cast their doubts. ‘There are several unanswered questions about the security of our elections. Remote voting is going to be a cyber security nightmare,’ Prasanna S, a Delhi based lawyer, told News Today. ‘Furthermore, most cybersecurity measures for remote voting would involve putting in place fairly invasive fraud detection and prevention systems which will, in all likelihood, lead to a compromise in the secrecy of the vote.’

Risk factor
Echoing Prasanna’s skepticism towards using this tech for e-voting is a recent study conducted by the Internet Policy Research Initiative (IPRI) based out of Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The authors in their report, The Ballot is Busted Before the Blockchain: A Security Analysis of Voatz’ briefed the weaknesses they found in an app which was used in 2018 US midterm elections that let select voters cast their ballot.

‘We find that Voatz has vulnerabilities that allow different kinds of adversaries to alter, stop, or expose a user’s vote, including a side channel attack in which a completely passive network adversary can potentially recover a user’s secret ballot,’ the authors assessed. ‘We additionally find that Voatz has a number of privacy issues stemming from their use of third party services for crucial app functionality.’

During their investigations, the team found that Voatz was vulnerable to a number of attacks which violated election integrity. ‘For example, we find that an attacker with root access to a voter’s device can easily evade the system’s defenses, learn the user’s choices (even after the event is over), and alter the user’s vote,’ their observation said. ‘We further find that their network protocol can leak details of the user’s vote, and surprisingly, that the system’s use of blockchain is unlikely to protect against server-side attacks.’

Growing interest
While a section of experts have voiced their concern, the romance towards block chain’s implementation in other field appears to grow as several government and businesses have pitched in to use this technology in numerous sectors. Ever since its creation in 2008 (by a secretive person or persons going by the name Satoshi Nakamoto) to serve as public transaction ledger of the cryptocurrency bitcoin, the arena for its application has spiralled.

Niti Aayog in a report,Blockchain: The India Strategy –Towards Enabling Ease of Business, Ease of Living and Ease of Governance, published last month, extensively analysed the technology’s possibility. ‘‘Blockchain’ has emerged to become a potentially transformative force in multiple aspects of government and private sector operations,’ wrote Vice Chairman of NITI Aayog, Rajiv Kumar in the report. ‘Its potential has been recognized globally, with a variety of international organizations and technology companies highlighting the benefits of its application in reducing costs of operation and compliance, as well as in improving efficiencies.’