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Expat voting Swiss e-voting system to undergo ‘hacker test’

Tastatur eines Laptops mit von innen leuchtenden Tasten

The system, developed by Swiss Post, will be open to attack from hackers around the world.

(Silas Stein / DPA / Keystone)

Next year, Swiss authorities will put one of the country’s two e-voting systems up for attack by hackers – with a prize on offer for those who break it. The Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA), a strong backer of online voting, has welcomed the confidence test.

The test, organised jointly by federal and regional authorities, will take place over four weeks sometime in spring 2019, the NZZ am Sonntag reports. 

According to the newspaper, the Federal Chancellery has a budget of some CHF250,000 ($247,500) to implement the contest and pay the hackers; a figure not confirmed by the authorities themselves.

Contacted by swissinfo.ch, OSA Director Ariane Rustichelli said that it was “a good sign that the Federal Chancellery, which is leading the project, is reacting to and taking seriously the fears [around e-voting]. Because, for about a year and a half now, more and more critical voices are arising, including in parliament”:

The OSA, which represents the interests of the 750,000 Swiss living abroad, is a heavily involved in debates around voting rights and the rolling out of online ballots. “If we manage to show that e-voting is safe, this could boost confidence in the system,” Rustichelli said.

For the test, hackers and IT specialists from inside and outside Switzerland will try to attack, manipulate, or pirate one of the two e-voting systems currently in use in the country – that operated by Swiss Postexternal link, writes the NZZ am Sonntag.

According to the newspaper, hackers can already sign up to participate, and the Federal Chancellery is keen to ensure as much participation as possible from around the world.

Experimental stage

Swiss public television, SRF, recently showed that during another test, hackers easily managed to manipulate the other e-voting system currently in use in Switzerland, developed by the canton of Geneva. Voters targeted by the hackers were redirected to a separate, bespoke page developed for the experiment.

e-voting video

video about e-voting in Switzerland

In Switzerland, e-voting has been introduced – on an experimental basis – in 10 of the 26 cantons. Aarau, Basel-City, Bern, Geneva, Luzern, St Gallen, and Vaud are trying the Geneva system; Fribourg, Neuchâtel, and Thurgau the Swiss Post system. Just last week, the parliament in Ticino also decided to introduce a trial period in the canton.

Federal and cantonal authorities now intend to pass beyond the experimental stage by introducing e-voting definitively; the necessary modification of federal law should go out for consultation process in the first quarter of next year.

Niggling concerns

The Swiss constitution guarantees all Swiss citizens the right to vote, whether they are within or outside the country, and to facilitate participation, expats have been demanding e-voting for some time. In many other countries, they say, postal voting is simply not an option: the documents often arrive too late, sometimes after the end of the voting period.

The OSA is currently collecting signatures for an online petition demanding that e-voting be made available to Swiss abroad. The Council of the Swiss abroad – it’s ‘parliament’ – even wants all expats to be able to vote online in time for the next national elections, in October 2019.

However, echoing a refraining concern about such a system to swissinfo.ch two years ago, social democrat politician Jean Chtristophe Schwaab said that while he was all for the idea in theory, caution must be exercised due to the security threat. “Reliability must be guaranteed before we open up any new voting channels,” he wrote. “When it comes to internet voting, this is not currently the case”.

Franz Grüter of the right-wing Swiss People's Party is more than just cautious. Despite being co-president of the Swiss abroad interparliamentary group, he is in favour of launching a people’s initiative to forestall any introduction of e-voting.

Why? “The NSA says that e-voting systems will be tomorrow’s targets for attack,” he told the Council of the Swiss abroad last March. “The system developed by Swiss Post was developed by an American-controlled business working out of Spain; this should give us food for thought.”


Translated from French by Domhnall O'Sullivan, swissinfo.ch

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