Category: Links to documents

Considering online voting including Estonia

There are three fundamental challenges with public discussions about online voting:

  • The majority of computer scientists, particularly computer scientists with expertise in voting systems, recommend again online voting, but journalistic false balance often presents this as one computer scientist vs. one online voting advocate.
  • The dedicated resources available from nations and vendors to promote online voting vastly outweigh the nondedicated volunteer resources available from computer security experts to explain the issues with online voting.
  • Voting appears simple but is actually complex, with many essential requirements that are hard to capture in a soundbite.  This makes it easier to make a convincing-sounding but incorrect “common sense” convenience argument for online voting than to make the correct technical requirements counter-argument.

Consensus Opinion

Basically if the press were actually representative about this “debate”, it would be like John Oliver’s classic expert-weighted debate, with 97 experts on one side and 3 sceptics on the other.  So any time you see an online voting “debate” on TV or in print, I want you to imagine 97 expert computer scientists recommending against online voting, and 3 promoters with various agendas advocating for it.

I don’t have the ability to construct that kind of visual, but just to make it clear, what I am writing recommending against online voting is not just one voice, and it’s not just 16 leading computer security experts, it’s the overwhelming consensus view. It’s the view in the computer scientist community.  In 2004 the Association for Computing Machinery, the world’s largest scientific and educational  computing society (with a membership now of approximately 100,000) issued a Statement on Voting Systems, which includes the following text

voting systems should enable each voter to inspect a physical (e.g., paper) record to verify that his or her vote has been accurately cast and to serve as an independent check on the result produced and stored by the system.

It’s this consensus view that is summarized by the City of Toronto

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

And if you wish there were some process to assemble a scientifically representative consensus into a document, well, I have good news.  The US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) knows exactly how to run a process to report on expert consensus, and they did.  Their report recommends against Internet voting.

Secure Internet voting will likely not be feasible in the near future.

So to be blunt, if you’re in favour of online voting, you’re against the scientific consensus.  You’re also against the conclusion of 99.5% of the countries in the world.

National Online Voting Only In One Country

There are approximately 200 countries in the world.  Of those, the number of countries that offer online voting for all citizens in all elections is one.  One country of approximately 1.3 million citizens, where the total number of votes cast in each election is roughly 600,000.  Where the majority of voters still cast their votes on paper, on election day.

One country where offering online voting is part of branding the nation as e-Estonia, including consistent promotion.  Does your country invest in promoting its election system internationally?  Maybe that’s why there aren’t many international news stories about your country’s voting system, but there are lots about Estonia’s.

Computer security experts simply don’t have the scale and reach that a national public relations initiative has.

It takes months of dedicated journalism to do a comprehensive story about the issues with online voting.  Which, fortunately Eric Geller did: Online voting is a cybersecurity nightmare.

Unfortunately, the reality of deadlines, lack of expertise in computer security and lack of expertise in the actual requirements for voting systems means that most articles don’t go into the same depth.

As a result, reporting on Estonia’s online voting tends to be relentlessly positive.

But in article after article there are also a number of things that don’t get said about Estonian elections, including:

  • turnout declined in the last national election, in the last two local elections, and in the 2014 European Parliamentary election
  • turnout in the 2015 Estonian national election was lower than turnout in Canada and the UK

Estonia national turnout 2015

  • the smallest number of votes cast is by the 18-24 year old age group
  • online voting is offered for advance voting only, and requires a national digital identification infrastructure
  • Although Estonia has observing, auditing and testing procedures, the only time international computer security experts were invited to observe the process was in 2014.  Those outside observers found “There were staggering gaps in procedural and operational security, and the architecture of the system leaves it open to cyberattacks from foreign powers”. Since that report, international computer security experts have not been invited back.

You can read about the 2014 study in Practical Attacks on Real-world E-voting, 7.3.2 Estonia’s Internet Voting System. Or you can watch J. Alex Halderman explain it

SIDEBAR: The 2016 study by the Cyber Studies Programme at the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford.

The University of Oxford conducted a study of Estonia’s Internet voting in 2016, entitled The Estonian Internet Voting System – An Independent Assessment of the Procedural Components.

It’s important to note the “procedural components” part of the description.  The study (PDF) states specifically:

We review the general procedural security components of the system, particularly procedural security controls, …. We therefore do not focus on software engineering or encryption related issues in the computer systems.

Additionally, this study was based on reported procedures, not direct observation.

Finally, we must state that there is one main limitation to our work. This relates to the fact that our research relies on interview reports on voting processes and systems from individuals in Estonia, as opposed to direct observation of the I-Voting system in process.

The 2016 Oxford study is therefore not comparable in either scope or methods to the direct observations of the international experts in the 2014 Independent Report on E-voting in Estonia.

END SIDEBAR

All Countries That Study Online Voting Reject It

At a national level, Internet voting has been studied by the Parliament of Australia, by a Canadian Parliamentary Committee, and by Finland.  Each study recommended against online voting.

Lithuania was considering online voting, but as best I can conclude through a layer of Google translation, has rejected it on national security grounds.

“Interior Minister Eimutis Misiūnas is still skeptical about online voting, according to him, until there is an absolute guarantee of security, elections must take place in a traditional way.”

LRT.lt – E. Misiūnas dėl balsavimo internetu – kol kas skeptiškas (March 1, 2018)

Rytis Rainys, Director of the National Cyber ​​Security Center, is not sure about the security of online voting.
“Fears about cyber security are one of the main reasons why this process stops,” he said. – These fears are not only justified but also based on facts, mass incidents that we have in Lithuania.”

LRT.lt – Internetu balsuojanti estė: tai nepalanku kai kurioms partijoms (February 28, 2019)

Online Voting And National Security

When Deloitte studied cybersecurity as it relates to elections for Australia, they found

The main concern is not the actual damage that cyber attacks can cause to individual electoral system components, although it exposes the individual jurisdiction to significant reputational damage. The bigger concern is that any reports of attempted or successful breaches gives adversaries the ability to sow doubt in the security and integrity of electoral processes.

Australia – Electoral Cyber Security Maturity Review: Whole of Nation Report (Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu report CN3550609 for the Department of Home Affairs – October 2018 – redacted)

So it’s not just that an online election can and will be attacked, it’s that the obscurity and lack of transparency of an online election opens it up to the opportunity of undermining trust in elections as a whole.

These are real threats.  Canada’s Centre for Cyber Security says

In 2018, half of all advanced democracies holding national elections had their democratic process targeted by cyber threat activity. This represents about a three-fold increase since 2015 and we expect the upward trend to continue in 2019.

2019 Update: Cyber Threats to Canada’s Democratic Process – Executive Summary

Online Voting Fails In Independent Testing

But even if you’re not convinced by the fact that the majority of computer scientists, and the majority of nations, and national security advisors are all against online voting, what about a real-world independent test?

Well, Switzerland fortunately has a legal framework in place that requires independent testing of proposed online voting solutions.

And when their online voting was independently examined (outside of the restrictions they had placed on the testing), it was found to be insecure. So they have withdrawn it.

Online Voting Fails When Deployed

Online municipal voting in Ontario failed in 2010 and again in 2018.

Home Computers Are Insecure

And remember you don’t just have to be concerned that the online voting code itself is insecure, people vote from their home computers, over the Internet to centralised servers.  Elections agencies have no control over the security of home computers and the Internet, and they have no control over when major security flaws will be discovered and patches will be released.  Such as for example the week of May 13th, 2019, when there was:

In fact, the US Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT) listed 99 (yes, ninety-nine) high-severity computer security vulnerabilities just for the week of May 13, 2019 alone.  And all of those computer security vulnerabilities, some of which will take weeks or months for consumers and organisations to patch (if ever), they all took place in the same week that Estonia opened its online voting on May 16th.  So you can be guaranteed that people were voting from insecure computers.

Vendors Control Most Internet Voting

And in addition to all of those factors, the reality in Canada and most other countries is that elections technology is created by third-party, for-profit vendors who shield their code and processes from inspection using intellectual property law.  This means elections are effectively outsourced to opaque third-party organisations.  I’ve written about this in the context of Ontario’s computer vote counting, and I would add that Ontario specifically stated their need to work closely with vendors

Throughout the planning phase, we worked closely with our vendors to establish accurate requirements, conduct necessary testing, determine support, and ensure the integrity of the election was never compromised. We were able to integrate vendors into the design and administration of the election, and we look forward to a strong working relationship with our vendors into the future.

Elections Ontario – Modernizing Ontario’s Electoral Process: Report on Ontario’s 42nd General Election June 7, 2018 – Section 2: Planning a Transformative Election, B. Building the Team, Vendors

Tell me, if you wanted to increase the connection that the public feels with its election system, if you wanted to bridge the gap between the public and its democratic system, would your first choice be less involvement of the public?  Because “integrating vendors” means removing the public from the inner workings of the election system itself.

And if you think at least the vendors must be experts in computer security, their record is abysmal.  In the 2007 Ohio EVEREST study, independent researchers found

“exploitable security weaknesses in all three vendors’ systems”

Ohio EVEREST Voting StudyStatement

Conclusion

With all that to consider, if you only have one takeaway from this entire blog post it is this:

you must demand public, independent, expert testing without restrictions before you place your confidence in online voting

Such testing has not taken place for the online voting in Ontario and Nova Scotia municipal elections.

There are too many other problems with online voting for me to summarize in what is already a long blog post, so I will conclude with two previous summaries I have done:

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

Securing the Vote – US National Academies 2018 consensus report

The US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) uses a comprehensive study process http://www.nationalacademies.org/studyprocess/ to ensure high standards of scientific and technical quality.

On September 6, 2018 they released their 2018 consensus report

Securing the Vote: Protecting American Democracy

The report is available to download as a PDF (login isn’t required, you can download as a guest) and is also posted to read online.  (See blog note 1 for the definition of a consensus report.)

The key conclusions highlighted in the introduction to the release are:

All U.S. Elections Should Use Paper Ballots by 2020 …; Internet Voting Should Not Be Used at This Time

Emphasis (bolding) above mine.

Ensuring the Integrity of Elections

Chapter 5: Ensuring the Integrity of Elections contains many sections relevant to voting technology.  Below are selected extracts only; please read the entire chapter for the full details.

Malware (pp. 86-87)

Malware can be introduced at any point in the electronic path of a vote—from the software behind the vote-casting interface to the software tabulating votes—to prevent a voter’s vote from being recorded as intended.

Maintaining Voter Anonymity (pp. 87-88)

With remote voting—voting outside of publicly monitored poll sites—it may not be difficult to compromise voter privacy. When voting, for example, by mail, fax, or via the Internet, individuals can be coerced or paid to vote for particular candidates outside the oversight of election administrators.

Election Cybersecurity

Election Cybersecurity (pp. 88-93)

Vulnerabilities arise because of the complexity of modern information technology (IT) systems and human fallibility in making judgments about what actions are safe or unsafe from a cybersecurity perspective. Moreover, cybersecurity is a never-ending challenge. It is unlikely that permanent protections against cyber threats will be developed in the near future given that cybersecurity threats evolve and that adversaries continually adopt new techniques to compromise systems or overcome defenses.

Election Cybersecurity: Cybersecurity and Vote Tabulation (p. 91)

Because there is no realistic mechanism to fully secure vote casting and tabulation computer systems from cyber threats, one must adopt methods that can assure the accuracy of the election outcome without relying on the hardware and software used to conduct the election. Uniform adoption of auditing best practices does not prevent tampering with the results collected and tabulated by computers. It can allow such tampering to be detected and often corrected.

I would clarify that it can only allow such tampering to be detected if there are paper ballots to audit.

Election Cybersecurity: Factors that Exacerbate Cybersecurity Concerns (p. 92)

Changing threat. Traditionally, the goal has been to secure against election fraud by corrupt candidates or their supporters who may attempt to favor a particular candidate by altering or destroying votes or tampering with the vote tally. The 2016 election vividly illustrated that hostile state actors can also pose a threat. These actors often possess more sophisticated capabilities and can apply greater resources to the conduct of such operations. Moreover, they may have other goals than shifting the outcome for a particular candidate.

Specifically they may be seeking to undermine confidence in the election process and systems, which is a different kind of attack than changing an outcome.  Any kind of visible or detectable interference such as defacing websites, Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS), or disclosure of information from within voting systems may achieve the goal of undermining confidence.

Election Cybersecurity: [Consensus] Findings (p. 92-93)

There is no realistic mechanism to fully secure vote casting and tabulation computer systems from cyber threats.

In comparison with other sectors (e.g., banking), the election sector is not following best security practices with regard to cybersecurity.

Even if best practices are applied, systems will not be completely secure.

Foreign state–sponsored attacks present a challenge for even the most responsible and well-resourced jurisdictions. Small, under-resourced jurisdictions are at serious risk.

Better cybersecurity is not a substitute for effective auditing.

I will highlight just one item from the review of End-to-end-verifiability, and I want to make it clear it is a conclusion about voting technology, not about end-to-end verifiability

Complicated and technology-dependent voting systems increase the risk of (and opportunity for) malicious manipulation.

Internet Voting

Internet Voting is covered on pages 101 to 106, including specific examination of Blockchains from pages 103 to 105.  Below are selected extracts only; please read the entire section in the document for the full details.

Internet Voting (pp. 101-106)

Insecure Internet voting is possible now, but the risks currently associated with Internet voting are more significant than the benefits. Secure Internet voting will likely not be feasible in the near future.

Emphasis (bolding) above mine.

Internet Voting: Blockchains (pp. 103-105)

blockchain technology does little to solve the fundamental security issues of elections, and indeed, blockchains introduce additional security vulnerabilities. In particular, if malware on a voter’s device alters a vote before it ever reaches a blockchain, the immutability of the blockchain fails to provide the desired integrity, and the voter may never know of the alteration.

Internet Voting: [Consensus] Findings (p. 106)

The Internet is not currently a suitable medium for the transmission of marked ballots, as Internet-based voting systems in which votes are cast on remote computers or other electronic devices and submitted electronically cannot be made adequately secure today.

The use of blockchains in an election scenario would do little to address the major security requirements of voting, such as voter verifiability. … In the particular case of Internet voting, blockchain methods do not redress the security issues associated with Internet voting.

Internet Voting: Recommendations (p. 106)

5.11 At the present time, the Internet (or any network connected to the Internet) should not be used for the return of marked ballots.35,36 Further, Internet voting should not be used in the future until and unless very robust guarantees of security and verifiability are developed and in place…

35 Inclusive of transmission via email or fax or via phone lines.

36 The Internet is an acceptable medium for the transmission of unmarked ballots to voters so long as voter privacy is maintained and the integrity of the received ballot is protected.

[1] Note: The NASEM defines a consensus report as follows

Consensus Study Report: Consensus Study Reports published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine document the evidence-based consensus on the study’s statement of task by an authoring committee of experts. Reports typically include findings, conclusions, and recommendations based on information gathered by the committee and the committee’s deliberations. Each report has been subjected to a rigorous and independent peer-review process and it represents the position of the National Academies on the statement of task.

[2] The report may be cited as e.g.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Securing the Vote: Protecting American Democracy. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi:10.17226/25120

UK 2005 Securing the Vote report and 2007 e-voting trials

Nothing remains of the May 2005 Securing the Vote report on the UK Electoral Commission site.  There used to be a page Securing the vote – detailed proposals for electoral change announced but it is now gone.

The only location where a copy could be found was in a document repository from The Guardian newspaper: http://image.guardian.co.uk/sys-files/Politics/documents/2005/05/20/eleccommission.pdf

The UK did extensive reporting on the 2007 pilots, the website was http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/elections/pilots/May2007 but it is no longer online. There is a copy in the Internet Archive.

Although there is no longer an organising page on the Electoral Commission page, some of the reports from 2007 are still available from them, as well as being copied in the Internet Archive.

There are two considerations to highlight from the UK Electronic Voting Summary:

  • New voting methods should be rolled out only once their security and reliability have been fully tested and proven and they can command wide public confidence.
  • The necessary costs for secure and reliable systems must be able to be reasonably met by the public purse.

I will highlight only one item from the Technical Assessments of the e-voting Pilots, item 3.4.4 from Assessment of the pilot process – Quality management:

While there were variations between the different pilots, in all cases the quality and testing arrangements appeared to be inadequate. It is difficult to tell whether this was purely because of lack of time, or whether some of the suppliers were not used to implementing effective quality processes. Significant quality management failings include:
a. Lack of detailed design documentation;
b. Lack of evidence of design or code reviews or other mechanisms for ensuring that the solutions operate correctly and do not include deliberate or accidental security flaws;
c. Lack of evidence of effective configuration management.

This kind of haphazard voting software development has been shockingly common, e.g. for US voting machines as well.

Note: The preceding is extracted from previous blog post Province of Ontario Internet voting.

UPDATE 2019-07-08: Just to bring all the pieces of the puzzle together, I will also point to a 2008 news release – Official report on internet voting pilot at Rushmoor elections published.

Other key findings in the report are that:

  • there was no impact on turnout, which actually decreased very slightly from 36 percent in 2006 to 35.2 per cent at these elections;
  • most internet voters (70 per cent) said they would have voted anyway;