01/05/2014 10:03 BST | Updated 30/06/2014 06:59 BST

Could E-Voting Threaten Our Democracy?

The Internet now reaches into nearly every aspect of our lives. Vast numbers of us routinely bank, shop and socialise online and the public services we all rely on are equally dependent on computers and the Internet. It's also true that the widespread use of social media has provided new ways for citizens to engage with the political process in the countries in which they live.

As a result, a number of countries have considered the use of online voting as a supplement to existing methods in elections. Some have carried out consultation processes on the issue and some have even introduced pilot schemes for some elections - this was done in 2011 in New South Wales, for example, where five times the number of expected online votes were cast.

With so many other aspects of our lives online, is it time to embrace online voting too? Before we do, I think it's important to consider the security aspects of online voting.

On the face of it, you might think that online voting faces the same threats as online shopping or banking - i.e. the threat from malware infection or phishing. This is quite true, but the consequences are not the same. The theft of online bank credentials or other forms of commercial identity theft can have a serious negative impact on a specific victim affected. But they don't threaten to undermine online commerce itself. Whereas even selective hijacking of voters' online credentials could have far reaching consequences, including undermining a country's political system. In a key marginal seat, for example, the transfer of votes from one candidate to another could change the outcome of the election. This could be the result of a man-in-the-middle attack or because a voter has been lured to a fake site where their voting credentials have been stolen.

A related development is the implementation of electronic counting as a replacement for the physical procedure for counting votes. This could be used alongside the current real-world methods of voting without introducing the danger of subverting the process. In this scenario, voters (or their proxy) would visit the polling station as normal, but instead of marking a ballot paper they would register their choice electronically. As long as the machines used to handle the count were secured (i.e. if they were stand-alone like an ATM machine) there wouldn't be a significant risk. But if electronic counting were introduced alongside online voting - where the machine registering votes would have to be Internet-based - this would add a further potential way of undermining the voting process.

The results of the online voting experiments like that in New South Wales, plus concerns about the declining numbers of people turning out to vote in traditional ways, are likely to make online voting an attractive option in the future. It offers a way of drawing in people who would otherwise not vote at all - particularly younger people who take the Internet for granted in their daily lives. On the other hand, if the online voting system can't be secured, there's a risk that the introduction of online voting could seriously undermine the whole concept of fair elections.