Comments about Orillia Internet voting

The City of Orillia has invited comments about its proposal for Internet voting in the 2018 Ontario municipal election.

The website is City of Orillia Voting Method – Public Comments and the deadline is Monday May 1, 2017 at 10am Eastern.

They have included a link to their staff report: Clerk’s Department Report CD 17-08 – Alternative Voting Method Options (PDF).

Below is my submission.


Dear Mayor and Council (c/o Janet Nyhof, Deputy Clerk):

I am writing in response to the request for comments about the recommended City of Orillia voting method.

I recommend against using Internet voting.

I have reviewed the Clerk’s Department Report CD-17-08 2018 Municipal Election – Voting Method Options.

I have the following concerns with this report, which does not cite computer science and computer security evidence:

* it appears to minimize the disadvantages

* it selectively reports on municipal adoption of Internet voting

* it does not provide a comprehensive analysis of the system-wide security and error risks

I agree with the following conclusions of the report, which are well-supported by social science evidence:

* Internet voting will not increase turnout, nor will it change the voter profile

I have provided additional detail in an appendix below.

Thank you,

Richard Akerman


I would like to examine the disadvantages cited in more detail:
*System may be perceived as vulnerable to hackers

All systems are vulnerable to hackers.  This is not perception, this is reality.  This is the nature of computers.  Microsoft, with huge resources, nevertheless releases patches every single month for critical errors (vulnerabilities) in Windows and associated Microsoft software.  The situation is so bad that the Economist magazine recently did a cover story proclaiming “Why computers will never be safe”.

I want to emphasize that this is not just about e.g. foreign hackers attacking the voting server.  It’s about two significant issues: 1) all systems have errors (bugs), and require extensive examination in order to ensure that errors have been minimized 2) the entire voting system, which in the case of Internet voting means the voter’s personal home computer or computing device, must be secure in order for the vote to be secure

How many hundreds or thousands of insecure home computers might be involved with a municipal Internet vote?  We really have no way of knowing; it would require a survey of a representative sample of users.  The Internet voting vendors almost never mention this security aspect of the election.  We do know that very large numbers of computers are compromised worldwide, due to lack of technical expertise combined with challenges in downloading what may be very large patches, as well as due to older systems such as Windows XP no longer receiving security updates.

Just this month the US Department of Justice began dismantling a network (“botnet”) of compromised computers that numbered in the tens of thousands of machines.  That’s just one example, of many.

Canadian government and corporate computers are hacked all the time.  Even Loblaw PC Plus points were hacked.

Of course, decisionmaking is always about balancing risks versus benefits.  I can tell you that when computer security experts examine online voting, they basically universally find that the risks are too high.  See for example Scientific American from February 2016

and a consensus statement from US computer scientists advising against Internet voting – “At the present, paper-based systems provide the best available technology….”

* Voter authentication
* Unsupervised voting

The combination of unsupervised voting and the inability to conclusively authenticate individual voters raises a number of very significant democratic issues: 1) voter credentials can now be bought and sold 2) since voting is unsupervised, even legitimate voters can be coerced by their friends or family to vote a particular way

* Role of the candidates/scrutineers change

In fact, any meaningful role for candidates and scrutineers in examining the conduct of the election is gone.  Their scrutineer role hasn’t changed, it’s been eliminated.  The entire trust that used to be established by watching physical ballots being counted in public is replaced by a transfer of trust to the black box of a third-party, for-profit, Internet voting technology vendor.  There is nothing to examine, there is nothing to recount.  A vote count comes out of the computer that cannot be challenged or changed.

* a summary of other municipalities’ 2014 Voting Method and 2018 Proposed Voting Methods

Not cited in the list in the Orillia report are:

[Correction to email, should say] Not cited in the list in the Orillia report (or changed since the report was released) are:

* Kitchener – no Internet voting in 2014, no Internet voting in 2018

* Waterloo – no Internet voting in 2014, no Internet voting in 2018

* Guelph – advance Internet voting in 2014, no Internet voting in 2018 (following an extensive debate with over 200 submissions and over a dozen deputants)
* Toronto – no Internet voting in 2014, no Internet voting in 2018

* Ottawa – no Internet voting in 2014, no Internet voting in 2018

Toronto’s report states, in part:

Internet Voting

Fundamentally, the Internet was designed to share information, not to secure it. Though an increasing amount of daily commercial life—from shopping to banking—has moved online, Internet voting poses security challenges that are unique and, in their current state, insurmountable.

The overwhelming consensus among computer security experts is that Internet voting is fundamentally insecure and cannot be safely implemented because of security vulnerabilities inherent in the architecture and organization of both the Internet and commonly used software/hardware:

  • *  Internet voting is extremely vulnerable to a wide range of cyber-attacks, and many of these are impossible to detect.
  • *  Internet voting poses extraordinary and unnecessary risks to election integrity, and even a small issue—were it even detectable—could completely undermine public trust.
Lastly, I will look at the security aspect of the Orillia report:
* The implementation of an electronic voting solution must ensure that the process is secure, provides confidentiality of the individual voter and provides accurate and reliable results.
The above statement is correct.  However, the report then fails to cover all aspects of “the process” including the home computer.  Securing a central server without securing all of the home computers that connect to it is like protecting a single big tree in a forest and declaring the forest is totally secure from damage, ignoring the fact that many of the smaller trees in the forest could be cut down.

Similarly, the ability to truly, provably separate the identity of an individual voter from the vote they cast is not possible with a computer-based systems.  Computers are designed to track changes made.  It is extraordinarily difficult to make a system that can simultaneously determine that an individual has permission to vote, while then not recording somewhere in the system which user cast which vote.  Lastly, accurate and reliable results require strong evidence.  The computer can’t be inspected in any meaningful way; it’s a black box.  The municipality is transferring the entire trust in the election from a process of open casting and counting of paper ballots to a closed system that exists entirely within the computer and is controlled entirely by the third-party voting technology vendor.

If Orillia nevertheless decides to proceed with Internet voting and is truly confident in the security of its system, I urge you in the spirit of open government to conduct an open, public test of the full online voting system well in advance of the election, with permission for anyone around the world to remotely examine the system in detail for security vulnerabilities and to publicly report their findings.  There is no security in obscurity.