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Are Paper-Based Systems More Secure Than Online Voting?

10/02/2017 12:20
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In a recent interview with the BBC, former MI6 head Sir John Sawers warned viewers against online voting systems due to his opinion they were not secure and would leave the UK open to cyber-attack. Indeed, despite 18 years of accumulated research and development, cryptography, verifiability and auditability which now sits behind online voting technology, as well as the many Governments and organisations successful utilising internet voting systems, Sir John's comments perpetuated the unsubstantiated myth that casting a ballot with a pencil and paper is the only way to ensure a privately cast and verified vote.

In the corresponding BBC article, there was also some confusion between online voting systems and accusations of email hacking in the US elections. Although the latter had nothing to do with online voting, they were unjustifiably linked and seen as one and the same, in terms of security at least, by dint of being in the same article. The inclusion of this arguably irrelevant reference within an article on online voting is reflective of the scaremongering we see associated with this technology. By the same logic, we might say our online banking is not secure because one of our social media accounts had been hacked into.

Online voting presents a huge opportunity to citizens, offering an alternative, more accessible and secure voting channel which can sit alongside traditional methods and empower previously disenfranchised groups such as overseas voters, disabled voters and those who are blind or partially sighted, so they can participate fully and independently in the democratic process. It is also key to engaging younger digital voters, but is currently held back by the uninformed view that all security platforms are created equally.

It is, of course, right to raise the issue of security and, like other voting channels used, online voting systems should be heavily scrutinised to ensure maximum security and privacy for voters and election integrity. One could argue that online voting is currently more secure than our current method of postal voting, where citizens have no way of knowing if their vote has been received, cast and recorded or even tampered with in any way. Online voting offers end-to-end security, cryptography and verifiability which is not possible in postal voting.

Ironically, although many organisations in both the public and private sector remain skeptical about the security of online voting systems and are slow to adopt, they are more than happy to register voters or customers online using, in many cases, sub-standard security in this process and putting the privacy of individual data at risk.

Encouraging, following Sir John's comments, Areeq Chowdhury, Chief Executive of WebRoots Democracy highlighted the lack of evidence that online voting is less secure than paper voting, as well as the many historical examples of fraud and corruption with paper based voting systems.

With the Digital Democracy Commission target of online voting by 2020 edging ever closer and years of research and expertise already behind this technology, isn't it time we had an informed debate on online voting security and gave voters the opportunity to use this method alongside traditional paper-based voting?

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