The U.S. 2020 election highlighted the fact that U.S. voting systems are antiquated, difficult to audit, and in dire need of an upgrade. It shouldn’t take this much effort and these many resources -- from county and state officials, poll workers, law enforcement, federal intelligence and national security agencies, third party observers, competing political parties, and more -- to assure their integrity.
To a large extent, our voting machines are black boxes; yet they are critical national infrastructure and should be treated as such. After two tumultuous U.S. presidential elections, it’s time for government to act on this matter. Over the past few years, U.S. Senators Klobuchar (D) and Lankford (R) repeatedly proposed bipartisan election security bills but they were never brought up for a vote on the U.S. Senate floor. Perhaps the silver lining in the current election controversy is that such a bill will finally be voted on and will inevitably pass.
Paper ballots are much more secure than electronic black boxes but are logistically impractical for large populations.
Voting System Solutions
In my estimation, voter verified paper receipts that are kept under lock and key, and then audited against vote tallies are the surest way to achieve election integrity. Election security bills have proposed this type of measure.
But on what electronic medium should votes be recorded, so they can be tallied automatically? My vote is to stop using our current black box voting system technology that lacks both transparency and proper regulatory oversight. (For a very informative look at the U.S. voting machinery, watch HBO documentary Kill Chain; the Cyber War on America's Elections)
Blockchain for Voting – Busting the Security Myth
Blockchain has surfaced as one such back end protocol that fits the bill for voting security and integrity. In this scenario, votes are recorded on a shared ledger and audit trail, where data are cryptographically secured and immutable. No one could possibly change a vote once recorded, and the entire voting history would be readily traceable. Voters could justifiably have full confidence in the shared data, which would be transparent and confidential, i.e. sensitive voter registration data would not be revealed but would be stored off-chain and linked to ledger blocks using cryptographic hashes.
Sound secure? It is and it isn’t…
Conventional wisdom has it that blockchain applications are natively secure because of the cryptography used to write, store and protect blockchain data. However, this is simply untrue. There are several ways that bad actors can compromise the security of blockchain applications and data without having to crack the cryptography.
We (David Mahdi and me) just published research that documents the top 5 blockchain security threats, their solutions, and some specialized vendors that can support the solutions. See Garbage in Garbage Forever: Top 5 Blockchain Security Threats
Contrary to popular belief, attacks against the blockchain protocol are not the main security risk. Instead, it is the users and interfaces to the blockchain that represent the weakest links and pose the top two highest security risks — as they typically do with any back-end system. Data written to and accessed by the blockchain comes next, followed by smart contracts and permissioned nodes in our list of the top five blockchain security risks. Criminals will almost always use the path of least resistance to commit their crimes, and our ranking of the top five blockchain security risk reflects this. Users are the most vulnerable and easy prey to target.
Blockchain is still Better than No Blockchain
Until we solve these security problems, blockchain won’t be the panacea for voting security that we would like it to be. Without solving them, blockchain is no better than any other database at ensuring the data are legitimate and not the data some hacker managed to put on it.
But securing access to the blockchain is no different than securing access to any database or voting system. It needs to be done irregardless of the backend protocol.
And if we do use blockchain distributed ledgers on the backend, we will end up with a transparent shared audit trail based on immutable data that no one on earth – other than perhaps a quantum computer – can tamper with once it’s inscribed for the history books.