Category: ERRE

defend Canadian electoral process from cyber threats – Minister of Democratic Institutions Mandate

In the mandate letter for Minister of Democratic Institutions Karina Gould, she receives direction to discontinue electoral reform activities

Changing the electoral system will not be in your mandate.

She is also directed to defend the current electoral system from cyber threats, by working with National Defence, Public Safety, and the Communications Security Establishment (CSE).

UPDATE 2017-06-19: The CSE has released its report on Cyber Threats to the electoral process.  ENDUPDATE

In addition through her, CSE is directed to analyze security risks to Canadian political and electoral activities, and to offer advice to Canadian political parties and Elections Canada on cybersecurity.

In collaboration with the Minister of National Defence and the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, lead the Government of Canada’s efforts to defend the Canadian electoral process from cyber threats.  This should include asking the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) to analyze risks to Canada’s political and electoral activities from hackers, and to release this assessment publicly.  As well, ask CSE to offer advice to Canada’s political parties and Elections Canada on best practices when it comes to cyber security.

(a copy of the mandate letter is also available in

Given the current cyber threat environment, with documented compromises of political party systems and elections-related systems, I consider this new emphasis on electoral process cyber security to be excellent.  Having CSE release its security assessment publicly is also a very important step.

Note that in addition to Canada and the US, the Australian Prime Minister also expressed his concern about foreign actors attacking political parties.

The [Australian] Federal Government is urging Australia’s political parties to steel themselves against potential foreign cyber attacks, as Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull prepares to announce an unprecedented cyber security briefing for political parties to be held in Canberra early next month.

from ABC News – Government urges political parties to ‘keep themselves secure’ ahead of cyber security briefing – January 23, 2017

ERRE Electoral Reform Committee Recommends Against Online Voting

The Special Committee on Electoral Reform, otherwise known as ERRE, has released its report with recommendations. The recommendation on online voting is unambiguous:

Recommendation 4
The Committee recommends that online voting not be implemented at this time.

Recommandation 4
Le Comité recommande que le vote en ligne ne soit pas mis en oeuvre à l’heure actuelle.

The report is Strengthening Democracy In Canada: Principles, Process And Public Engagement For Electoral Reform or « Renforcer la démocratie au Canada : principes, processus et mobilisation citoyenne en vue d’une réforme électorale ».

The online voting section is Chapter 6: Online and Electronic Voting, pp. 109-116 in the English report, and Chapitre 6 : Le Vote En Ligne Et Le Vote Électronique 119-127 in the French text.

There are two “Supplemental Reports” at the end of the main report, one by the Liberals  pp. 321-328, and one by the NDP & Greens pp. 329-333.  Neither supplemental report dissents from the recommendation against online voting.

The report also categorizes (pp. 309-310) the 574 submitted briefs by whether they submitted arguments in favour of or against online voting.  They found 52 briefs were in favour, and 60 were against.  They make no analysis of the evidence presented by the individual briefs (and in fairness I haven’t had time to do so either myself).

In the report itself, the only brief that is cited is from Brian Lack of Simply Voting, who concluded that the “heightened threat level of a federal election pushed the security of Internet voting past its limit and poses too much of a risk”.404

404Brian Lack (Simply Voting), “Simply Voting Submission to the Special Committee on Electoral Reform,” Submitted Brief, 20 September 2016.

It probably isn’t wise for me to criticise a process that came to the desired conclusion, but there are substantial issues with the way evidence was gathered and how it is presented in the report.

First and foremost, for an issue that involves complex technical questions of computer security and the nature of computer programs, there was a single computer science expert in online voting called.  One witness out of 196 invited witnesses.  Now we can certainly debate what percentage of the witnesses should have been computer science experts – 5%? 10%?  But I think we can agree that 0.5% is not sufficient.  And it’s actually not even really 0.5%.  The social science expert and the voting technology company each got 10 minutes, in Ottawa, on video.  The computer science expert (Dr. Barbara Simons) got 5 minutes, in Vancouver, on audio only.  So more like 0.1% of the testimony was from a computer science expert in online voting.

It is great that Dr. Simons is extensively quoted in the online voting section, but if she had missed her plane that entire section might have been radically different.  More experts should have been called – I have a list over a dozen experts they could have contacted.

I am a bit disappointed to hear committee members say, as Chair Francis Scarpaleggia said in the National Press Theatre (CPAC video, December 1, 2016) that the committee heard “convincing testimony from experts” about online voting computer security.  You heard from expert in computer security.  You only invited one.

Secondly, there are those of us who put hours into gathering and carefully presenting the evidence in our briefs about online voting.  But it turns out that two minutes on open-mic might have been time better spent, as there are two open-mic presenters cited vs. only one brief.

Thirdly, there was no white paper, no discussion paper, no briefing prepared to guide discussion of online voting.  BC, New Brunswick, and Edmonton all had discussion papers for online voting.  Why didn’t the Government of Canada?  Such a discussion paper might have mentioned e.g. that Nova Scotia, Ontario, Quebec and BC have all rejected online voting at a provincial level, with Ontario’s conclusion coming after three years of investigation.  And it might have said that Toronto, Waterloo and Edmonton have also rejected online voting at a municipal level.  And that Australia, Norway and the UK have all rejected national online voting.  How are we supposed to have a meaningful conversation without any background information, without any context?

Fourthly, the report examines “and electronic voting” even though the mandate of the committee clearly states only “online voting”.  Do committee mandates not have any meaning?

In conclusion, I hope that the advice from the Committee about online voting will be accepted by the Minister, and I sincerely hope that it will be a long time before we consider online voting again.  Since the report is only advisory, I still urge you to contact the Minister directly to express your opinion about online voting.  I also hope the next time we consider Internet voting, we invite more than one computer science expert witness, and have an discussion document providing evidence from the computer science community.

Aleksander Essex on Internet Voting in Canada

Aleksander Essex’s submission to the ERRE Special Committee on Electoral Reform is now available:

Some key areas of concern he identifies include:

  • Vote selling and Coercion
  • Phishing
  • Automation bias
  • Denial of Service
  • Client-side malware/spyware
  • Network attacks
  • Server penetration
  • Insider influence
  • State-level actors

He cites the recommendations in the 2015 Utah iVote Advisory Committee Report (PDF), specifically the call for public trials (white hat hacking) of any proposed Internet voting system. Here’s the relevant paragraph from the Utah report:

We recommend that Utah build requirements for an open, public trial for any proposed voting system. The requirements should clearly state the level of integrity and auditability that is required for acceptance along with the overall security and integrity goals for the system. Be aware that even with open, public penetration trials, an Internet voting system would still be subject to malware, phony voter, DDoS, phishing, and insider attacks. So we further recommend that any requirements for an Internet voting system address these concerns specifically and require that vendors satisfy them. In addition, Utah should strongly consider that source code for the entire voting system be made open source so that it can be subjected to review, build, and test by computing professionals not under the influence or supervision of the vendor.

For more about Aleksander Essex see my list of computer science experts

ERRE Electoral Reform Committee – MP reports, Briefs, Witnesses, Meetings

The ERRE Special Committee on Electoral Reform has a page that has MP reports (“Members Reports”), Briefs submitted by Canadians, a list of Witnesses including direct links to their testimony (click on the microphone icon), and Meetings.
It’s a very useful page, but unfortunately kind of buried unless you know about it.
You can find it at

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