Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Blockchain voting could spell the end of electronic voter disenfranchisement

As some of you may have noticed, I've been on the subject of disenfranchisement of late. Disenfranchisement is more than denying the right to vote. It is also stealing the votes. There are numerous articles on the problems posed by black box electronic voting. Ten year old machines using Windows that are easily hacked is one really big way that people are disenfranchised. And when the CEO of the machine manufacturer promises to deliver the votes to the Bush campaign, you know there is a problem.

I've taken notice of this problem here, here and here. I've also advocated for an open source voting system on this blog numerous times and still believe that our best hope for a truly accountable voting system is in open source software. but knowing what I know about databases, I know that the temptation exists to alter the results of the election by whatever means possible.

When we use voting machines with a proprietary operating system such as Windows, we're using a voting machine running on code that few people outside of the manufacturer's offices have seen. A voting machine manufacturer could easily throw the election one way or another with a simple update to the machine. Or, as in the case of the Advanced Voting Solutions, make a machine so easy to hack, it will take your breath away.

So I did some more research and found a very interesting solution to the problem of election fraud with electronic voting. it's called blockchain voting. A blockchain is a public transaction ledger that is hardened against tampering. Cryptography is used to verify the contents and to add new contents as each block in the chain is added. It is peer to peer, meaning that a large group of computers are used to reach a consensus on the current state of the blockchain, and that means it's a public database. It is the basis for numerous transaction systems where exchanges of value are made, such as Bitcoin, an electronic currency.

There is a growing interest in the concept of blockchains and even Wall Street is seeing value in it. In other words, people are willing to invest money into it and use it to store value for purchases. The reason for this is simple. Applying cryptography to a transaction database system means that breaking the system is very difficult. If you alter one block in the chain, all subsequent blocks in the chain are invalidated. And of course, every other computer with a copy of the database would know this, too. Defeating a blockchain system for personal gain at the expense of all others is very, very difficult.

To put this in perspective, to use brute force to break encryption on 256-bit AES encryption, that is to use every possible combination of characters to guess the passcode, would require the energy of years of output from our sun. It's not just a question of energy, but of time. Encryption is to me, one of those mathematical wonders of mankind. It doesn't take very much energy to encrypt information, but if you lose the password, you're toast.

A blockchain is a public database so that anyone could verify it's contents. But it's also verified using the principles of encryption to ensure that it cannot be altered. The costs of changing it after the fact are very high. You can read more about the basic principles of how it works here. You can watch a video on how blockchains work here.

The point is, we now have a mathematical system that can record transactions, verify their existence, and be resistant to fraud upon the system.

So it is with a sigh of relief that I am finding more than one system being proposed to use blockchains to record votes. The Brave New Coin website suggests that we could have blockchain voting machines ready by 2016. Well, that didn't happen, but the word is starting to get out. There is even a startup called, Follow My Vote, proffering a very secure and verifiable voting system. From registration, to voting to counting, every transaction is recorded to a blockchain. Since the block chain is recorded by many peer computers, it is nearly impossible to commit fraud on the system without every other peer noticing. You can watch their demo here. The votes can also be kept secret so that your vote is secure, as it should be.

One thing that struck me is the age of the presenter in those videos for Follow My Vote (yes, they have more than a few of them on YouTube). He is a millenial, and that to me suggests that there are millenials who get it that there are some very serious problems to solve in this and other countries. The problem of creating a very secure and accountable voting system may have been solved. But the millenials give me hope that they are up to other challenges like global warming, pollution and overpopulation.

It is not enough to take the big money out of politics. We have to remove the opportunity and incentive to steal elections. Blockchain voting represents a very real hope that future elections will be secure and accountable to the people they serve. Blockchain voting guarantees that our voices will be heard at the polling booth. Implementing it is only a matter of political will.
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