Category: Canada

Open Source code and Canadian elections

Here’s what I wrote in response to some confusion about Canadian elections in the comments on Schneier on Security blog post DARPA Is Developing an Open-Source Voting System

Sfan and Earnest – In response to Sfan’s statement “FWIW, Elections Canada used a paper & marker ballot system and a human & paper based voter validation system until 2015.”

Elections Canada runs federal elections only, and continues to use hand-marked paper ballots that are hand counted. See e.g. https://twitter.com/ElectionsCan_E/status/1105136418639233024

You might be confusing Elections Canada with Elections ONTARIO, which has recently switched from hand-counted ballots to vote counting computers for provincial elections. With, I might add, zero provision for risk-limiting audits.

Municipal elections in Ontario, which are governed by provincial election law, use a mix of vote counting computers (as in the City of Ottawa) and completely unregulated Internet voting. Internet voting run by third-party for-profit companies with zero public availability of source code, zero public security testing, and no legislative provisions for either.

In terms of the substance of Schneier’s blog post, there are also some issues. He quotes

The system will use fully open source voting software, instead of the closed, proprietary software currently used in the vast majority of voting machines, which no one outside of voting machine testing labs can examine. More importantly, it will be built on secure open source hardware, made from special secure designs and techniques developed over the last year as part of a special program at DARPA [Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency].

(Emphasis on special mine.)

Issues to consider:

  • Open source is better (because it can be inspected) but ultimately useless as a voting computer improvement because you cannot prove what code is running on a computer.
  • In theory you can address the issue of what code is running by having secure hardware but there is no perfect hardware security, just like there is no perfect software security.  Additionally, election security is about universally understandable verifiability.  Any citizen should be able to understand the election process and the results.  “Trust us, this special hardware is secure” is no different than “trust us while we go in this special locked room and secretly produce the election results”.
  • Similarly, in theory you can use cryptographic techniques to improve the security and verifiability of the election, but the only people who can actually understand them is a tiny set of cryptographers.  To everyone else you’re saying “trust us, this special crypto code is secure” which is no different than “trust us while we go in this special locked room and secretly produce the election results”.

Having open source is better, having public inspection and testing of the code is better, having verified cryptography is better, but none of these improvements to computer vote counting address the fundamental issue which is that you can’t do computer vote counting in a way that is transparently understandable by every voter, and so you shouldn’t be doing computer vote counting at all.

Plus which, in practice you can’t tell what code is running on a computer anyway, because computers can lie.  Computer programs are written by people; people can lie, and so they can tell computers to lie.  You can ask the computer “are you running this open source code” and the computer can say “oh yes, absolutely” even as it triggers the hidden election day malware that slightly alters votes just enough to tip the result to a different candidate.

At most, when you have very complicated ballots as in the US you can consider doing computer vote counting with hand-marked paper ballots and a risk limiting audit.  But for Canada’s extraordinarily simple elections, computer vote counting adds needless complexity, obscurity and risk to an already optimised system.

That being said, if we are stuck with Internet voting in Canadian municipal elections, open source code and public security testing is absolutely essential, as much because it will demonstrate repeatedly that the source code is both ridiculously complicated and insecure, as for the fact that it helps reduce (but definitely not eliminate) security risks.

In other words, open source and public security inspections are only about making something we shouldn’t be doing in the first place less terrible.  They are not an actual solution.  The actual solution is not to have Internet voting and computer vote counting at all in Canadian elections.

Internet voting doesn’t increase turnout and isn’t reliable

The claims made for Internet voting include:

  • it will increase overall turnout
  • it will increase youth turnout
  • it will be more efficient and reliable than paper-based, human-counted elections

And here is the reality:

  • it doesn’t increase overall turnout
  • it doesn’t increase youth turnout, and in fact young people cast the fewest votes using Internet voting
  • it crashes

That is to say, Internet voting doesn’t even have the benefits claimed for it, setting aside the fact that even if it did, it would be a terrible idea from a security and election transparency perspective.

I don’t have the ability to go through every single one of the hundreds of 2018 Municipal Election reports from the hundreds of (mostly tiny) municipalities in Ontario that used Internet voting, many of them offering only Internet voting (no paper option at all).  But I can give as an example Hanover, Ontario, with 5,411 eligible voters.

Report CAO-05-19 – 2018 Post Election & Accessibility Report, pp. 113-125 of February 4, 2019 Committee of the Whole.pdf

Key sections:

Turnout

The final voters’ list was comprised of 5,411 eligible electors with 2,632 or 48.64% voting. This represented a decline from 56.39% in 2014

Voter turnout was markedly lower among those aged 35 or younger than with those aged 55 or older. Turnout was highest among those aged 60 and over, consistently bettering 60% for both men and women. However, turnout was lowest among those under the age of 35.

Voting Outage and State of Emergency

Due to technical issues in the closing hours of the election, the clerk declared an emergency under section 53 of the Act. Under the circumstances, the decision was made to extend the voting period by 24 hours with the polls officially closing at 8:00 pm on October 23, 2018. 49 municipalities, all clients of Dominion Voting Systems (DVS), were affected by the same technical problem and extended their voting period.

I find it remarkable that given that Internet voting delivers on none of its supposed turnout benefits, and fails in ways that paper elections can’t, Ontario municipalities still plan to use it for the next election.

These results about turnout aren’t new – you can see many other examples in my blog post Online voting doesn’t increase turnout.

I have also extracted Grey County 2018 Municipal Election Turnout, which gives a sense not only of the size of the municipalities involved, but also shows that none of them exceeded 50% turnout.

Grey County 2018 Municipal Election Turnout

In order to give an overall sense of the election, I include 2018 Municipal Elections Post-Election Summary by Municipal Service Office (MSO) – there are five regional MSOs.  It shows a more complicated turnout picture, but basically the conclusion is that Internet voting doesn’t bring dramatic turnout improvements.

2018 Municipal Elections Post-Election Summary by MSO JPEG 300

Ottawa Event – Cyber Attack – Threats to Canadian Democracy

Public Policy Forum event Cyber Attack – Threats to Canadian Democracy
June 6, 2018 at 5pm in Ottawa

As Canada prepares for the 2019 federal election, government institutions, political parties, individual politicians and media are all on the radar of adversaries, ranging in sophistication, from hacktivists to foreign governments. Understanding the potential for attack and what organizations and individuals can do to thwart potential threats is key to ensuring the legitimacy of Canadian elections.

Speakers

The Honourable Karina Gould, Minister of Democratic Institutions

Elisabeth Dubois, Assistant Professor of Communications, University of Ottawa

Jan Neutze, Director of Cybersecurity Policy, Microsoft

Michael Pal, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Law, University of Ottawa
and Director of the Public Law Group

Moderator

Jennifer Robson, Assistant Professor, Political Management, Arthur Kroeger College,
Carleton University

Twitter list of speakers and moderator: https://twitter.com/papervote/lists/ppf-cyberthreats-2018

Bill C-76 Elections Modernization Act – changes implicating electronic voting

April 30, 2018 – 42nd Parliament, 1st Session – Bill C-76 Elections Modernization Act

The proposed changes to section 18.1:

  • a specific section 18.1(3) providing that the Chief Electoral Officer “shall develop, obtain or adapt voting technology for use by electors with a disability, and may test the technology for future use in an election”
  • in 18.1(4) the removal of the requirement that using electronic voting (“voting technology”) require the approval of the full Senate and House of Commons

It’s a bit unclear what the difference is between 18.1(2) “alternative voting process” and 18.1(3) “voting technology”.  Can an alternative voting process include new technology?  I have to assume so, particularly given how it is framed in the Chief Electoral Officer’s recommendations.  (There is no definition provided in the bill for “alternative voting process”).

In An Electoral Framework for the 21st Century: Recommendations from the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada Following the 42nd General Election, Table A—Recommendations Discussed in Chapters 1 and 2, A15. 18.1 it says “The distinction between the approval requirement for testing an electronic voting process and any other alternative voting process should be removed”.

Proposed Changes

2014, c. 12, s. 8
15 Sections 18.‍01 and 18.‍1 of the Act are replaced by the following:
International cooperation
18.‍01 The Chief Electoral Officer may provide assistance and cooperation in electoral matters to electoral agencies in other countries or to international organizations.
Voting studies
18.‍1 (1) The Chief Electoral Officer may carry out studies on voting, including studies respecting alternative voting means.
Alternative voting
(2) The Chief Electoral Officer may devise and test an alternative voting process for future use in an election.
Voting technology — electors with a disability
(3) The Chief Electoral Officer shall develop, obtain or adapt voting technology for use by electors with a disability, and may test the technology for future use in an election.
Prior approval
(4) Neither an alternative voting process nor voting technology tested under subsection (2) or (3) may be used in an election without the prior approval of the committees of the Senate and of the House of Commons that normally consider electoral matters.

Existing Text

Clause 15: Existing text of sections 18.‍01 and 18.‍1:
18.‍01 The Chief Electoral Officer may, at the Governor in Council’s request, provide assistance and cooperation in electoral matters to electoral agencies in other countries or to international organizations.
18.‍1 The Chief Electoral Officer may carry out studies on voting, including studies respecting alternative voting processes, and may devise and test an alternative voting process for future use in a general election or a by-election. Such a process may not be used for an official vote without the prior approval of the committees of the Senate and of the House of Commons that normally consider electoral matters or, in the case of an alternative electronic voting process, without the prior approval of the Senate and the House of Commons.

Canadian reports recommending against Internet voting

Internet voting has been studied.  Again and again.  Any time there is a comprehensive study, it recommends against online voting.

Here are the Canadian federal and provincial reports:

  • New Brunswick (A pathway to an inclusive democracy) – 2017
  • Government of Canada (Strengthening Democracy In Canada: Principles, Process And Public Engagement For Electoral Reform) – 2016
  • Prince Edward Island (Considerations for Applying E-Voting Options [Internet voting] in Canadian Public Elections – Independent Technical Panel on Voting Integrity) – 2016
  • British Columbia (Independent Panel on Internet Voting) – 2014
  • Ontario (Alternative Voting Technologies Report) – 2013
  • Nova Scotia (Internet and Telephone Voting in Nova Scotia) – 2012
  • Quebec (Evaluation Report of the New Methods of Voting that were Used during the Municipal Elections of November 2005 / Élections municipales de novembre 2005 : Rapport d’évaluation des nouveaux mécanismes de votation) – 2006

I can’t list every municipality, but here are a few municipal reports as well:

  • Toronto (EX20.5 – Changes to the Municipal Elections Act and Related Matters Impacting the 2018 Election – Part B – Voting Technology) – 2016
  • Waterloo (CORP2016-105 Alternative Voting Methods (Internet Voting)) – 2016

I don’t know how many times you have to study the exact same thing, year after year, decade after decade, before you eventually agree with the conclusion that we should not implement Internet voting.  Apparently many times.

It is very unfortunate that both Ontario and Nova Scotia, having investigated and rejected Internet voting at the provincial level, have left it to individual municipalities to decide whether to adopt Internet voting municipally, without any briefing or guidance or standards.  Basically municipalities are left to google and decide.  If the provinces had set even basic requirements, such as an independent public security test of all Internet voting systems, things would have gone very differently.  (If you think having independent public security tests of the systems would have too much risk, it’s worth mentioning that even the US Department of Defence has an official “Hack the Pentagon” initiative.)

Canadian reports on election security and misinformation

Government of Canada

Academia

PEI 2016 Plebiscite Voting Integrity Audit Report recommends against federal and provincial Internet voting

Prince Edward Island (PEI) – 2016 Plebiscite on Democratic Renewal – Voting Integrity Audit Report – from the Independent Technical Panel on Voting Integrity (ITPVI) – November 30, 2016

This report is Section 3 Appendix in the 2016 Annual Report of the Chief Electoral Officer of PEI  (PDF), starting on page 35.

Section 11 of the Voting Integrity Audit Report is Considerations for Applying E-Voting Options [Internet voting] in Canadian Public Elections.

The report recommends against Internet voting at the federal and provincial levels, except for absentee voters.

There is a need to maintain an acute level of awareness of the risks to electoral integrity that these new voting methods present. The implications of a breach of the public trust that exists today suggests strongly that internet and telephone voting in Canadian provincial and federal parliamentary elections be considered channels that should be limited to use only by absentee voters for the immediate foreseeable future. …

It is important that leaders in Canadian electoral administration manage public expectations and articulate their concerns about the fact that a perfectly secure and fool-proof electronic voting system does not yet exist.

This recommendation was picked up in the news media, e.g. CBC News PEI – Online voting not ready for federal, provincial election: officials – May 4, 2017.

The group concluded a high-stakes provincial or federal election could attract groups looking to intervene in illicit ways through cyber-attacks, hacking or other means.

The report also does an excellent job of showing the “additional risks and controls associated with online electronic voting” [Internet voting]. These include (highlighting by me):

1. Trusted digital voter identification and authentication is a requisite additional control. An irrefutable digital identity is the first safeguard in ensuring that eligible voters can vote (and can vote only once), and in ensuring that ineligible voters are not permitted to vote. Establishing this identity with a robust ‘shared secret’ is a mandatory prerequisite.

2. The onus is on the buyers, designers, developers, maintainers and operators of any electronic voting system to demonstrate rigor in the specifications, certifications, accreditations, testing and operation of the e-voting system to ensure it is able to mitigate the full range of risks to a reasonable and acceptable level. This has to be achieved to a level of satisfaction regarding both hardware and software risk mitigation. The remaining level of risk needs to be accepted by all stakeholders.

3. With the elimination of the controls that were previously implemented in manually controlled voting processes (refer Appendix ‘G’: Controls C1 – C5), traditional risks are not as fully mitigated as before. In fact, the following risks are difficult to mitigate in any meaningful way:
a. Vote buying / vote secrecy (“I’ll just take a selfie in front of my screen”)
b. Voter coercion (Unless reported, it is impossible to determine if a vote is being coerced)

4. The risk of a voter voting with stolen credentials can only be partially mitigated by effective voters list management and the implementation of a trusted digital voter identification and authentication scheme. Digital voter identification must be robust, but it must also be easily managed so as not to become a barrier to voting because it is overly complex for a voter to use as seldom as once every four years.

5. The additional risks of compromised end-user hardware or software, or a broad regional or national attack on internet infrastructure, remain unmitigated.

The report also identifies the extremely high standard to which we must hold Internet voting, as the transparency provided by conducting paper ballot voting and counting in public are lost when using completely computerized processes.  Highlighting added by me.

The onus is also completely on the online electronic voting system implementer to ensure that controls are established within the e-voting system that meet the legislative requirements of the jurisdiction, and provide an adequate level of transparency for all stakeholders. Simply depositing electronic votes into a ‘black-box’ where they are stored and counted is unlikely to meet stakeholder demands for maintaining a high level of public confidence, unlikely to publicly show that voting risks are continuing to be
managed responsibly, and unlikely to prove to candidates and political parties that the electoral process and controls continue to deliver a trusted and accurate result.

SIDEBAR on turnout:
A demonstration of the reality of Internet voting turnout was the 2016 Prince Edward Island Plebiscite on Democratic Renewal which had 10 days of online voting in addition to two days of in-person voting. Not only was the overall turnout low at 36.5%, but the turnout for ages 18-24 was the lowest of any age range, at 25.47%.

Numbers from McLeod, G. B. (2016, November 9). Interim Report of the Chief Electoral Officer for the 2016 Plebiscite on Democratic Renewal. http://www.gov.pe.ca/photos/original/elec_demrefpleb.pdf
END SIDEBAR