Eyes Above The Waves

Robert O'Callahan. Christian. Repatriate Kiwi. Hacker.

Friday 24 February 2017

Against Online Voting

There's a push on by some to promote online voting in New Zealand. I'm against it.

Government has called for local government to take the lead in online voting, with the need to guarantee the integrity of the system - most notably safety from hacking - the top priority.

But Hulse questioned some politicians' interest in a digital switchover.


Hulse said the postal system isn't bullet-proof either.

"Government seems to want absolute watertight guarantees that it is not hackable or open to any messing with," she said.

"I don't know why people seem to feel somehow the postal vote has this magic power of being completely safe. It can be, and has been, hacked in its own way by people just going round at night and picking up ballot papers."

I think the fears around last year's US election emphasized more than ever the importance of safeguarding the electoral process. Hacking is a greater threat than, say, people stealing postal ballot papers for a few reasons.

Stealing postal ballots is necessarily risky. A thief must be physically present and there is a risk of being caught. In contrast, many hacks can be done from anywhere and it's relatively easy to conceal the source of the attack.

The risk and effort required to steal ballots is proportional to the number of ballots stolen. In contrast, successful hacks are often easy to scale up to achieve any desired effect with no extra work or risk.

Some fraction of people are likely to notice their postal ballot went missing and notify the authorities, who can then investigate, check for other missing ballots, and invalidate postal ballots en masse if necessary. Hacks against online voting systems can be much more stealthy.

People systematically overestimate the security of electronic systems, partly because a relatively small group has the background to fully understand how they work and the risks involved --- and even that group is systematically overconfident.

A spokeswoman for the Mayor's office said Goff was not available for comment due to other commitments this week, but said the Mayor endorsed the push for online voting.

Deputy Mayor, Bill Cashmore, also said while there is no clear timeline on when a trial might run, online voting is also something he would like to see introduced - pointing out it would probably be well-received by young voters and a good way of maximising the reach of the democratic process.

That's all very well, but confidence in the integrity of the voting process is also an important driver for participation.

The fundamental problems with online voting are well-understood by the research community. The NZ Government should continue holding the line on this, at least for Parliamentary elections. For local body elections (which the Mt Albert election is referenced above is not), voter participation is so low you can make the argument that reducing the integrity of the election is worthwhile if online voting significantly increases the participation rate. However, there is evidence it may not.


Peter McNeeley
Election results could be made cryptographically verifiable and published online. If such algorithms do not already exist then I am confident they could be developed by CS/Math Phd.