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Hacking fears jeopardise e-voting rollout

Voting electronically is only possible in four of the 26 cantons in the next election: Geneva, Basel City, Lucerne and Neuchâtel Keystone

A recent government decision to deny nine cantons the ability to offer e-voting for the upcoming national elections has come under fire. Critics say it threatens the broader use of electronic voting in the future. 

In a press release last month, the government said an audit of the electronic voting system developed by American company Unisys revealed major security flaws in the protection of voting secrecy. The machine was proposed by a consortium of nine cantons to be used in the upcoming elections. 

The government’s decision means that despite significant progress in introducing e-voting to Switzerland in recent years, just four of 13 cantons that applied to offer e-voting during the October parliamentary elections have been authorised to do so. Critics of the decision say that a large majority of the 142,000 Swiss abroad registered to vote will now not be able to do so by electronic means. 

“The government’s decision is not only incomprehensible, but it is also likely to call into question the people’s confidence in the credibility of e-voting,” says Peter Grünenfelder, chancellor of Aargau and president of the consortium of nine cantons based in the Zurich region that were refused access to electronic voting. 

Grünenfelder believes that by rejecting the use of the American-developed technology, the government is hoping to support publicly developed e-voting systems, such as the one used by Geneva, rather than private ones. 

‘Serious deficiencies’ 

However, government spokesman André Simonazzi rejects this hypothesis and says the cantons have had 18 months to ensure the electronic voting system met the required security conditions. 

“In the area of protecting voting secrecy in particular, some serious deficiencies were noted,” Simonazzi said. “In the case of a cyber-attack, hackers would have been able to reveal the electors’ vote, which is not tolerable in a democracy.”  

Opponents of the generalised rollout of electronic voting can be found in political parties as diverse as the Greens and the People’s Party. Social Democratic parliamentarian Jean-Christophe Schwaab says the government’s decision will protect Swiss democracy. 

“After having gone full-steam ahead in recent years, the government has adopted a more prudent position, which is all the better,” says Schwaab. “It would not have been responsible to authorise the use of a system which does not provide all the necessary security guarantees. Those who play with security run the risk of democracy disappearing.” 

Schwaab is also particularly pleased the government rejected the voting system developed by a private American company. 

“We know very well that the American companies install backdoors in their software so that the NSA (National Security Agency) and other government agencies can have access to the data. Voting secrecy should not be put at the mercy of foreign intelligence,” he says. 

Moratorium on e-voting? 

Grünenfelder does not believe that he erred in using technology developed by a private American company. But in effect, he says, the government’s decision amounts to imposing a moratorium on e-voting in the nine affected cantons.

The decision will not just lead to a temporary halt in e-voting, says Grünenfelder. “The money invested, to the tune of millions of francs, has gone up in smoke, and it is very likely that the cantons won’t be launching another project like this one anytime soon.” 

Around the world

Switzerland is one of the few countries which provides voting by internet. In Europe, trials have been conducted by France and Estonia. Norway introduced e-voting but suspended the project in June 2014. Quebec followed the same path last year after the system experienced several major technical problems.

But not everyone is so defeatist. Ardita Driza Maurer, a Swiss independent consultant and an expert on electronic voting for the Council of Europe, says the government’s decision demonstrates the seriousness with which it has tried to introduce this method of voting over the last 13 years.

“Switzerland has developed one of the most advanced and strict laws in relation to the security of electronic voting,” she says. “This was passed into law at the beginning of 2014 and the cantons need time to adapt.” 

Individual verifiability 

This year, the arrival of new technologies and the introduction of individual verifiability marked a major milestone in the development of e-voting technologies, according to Driza Maurer. 

“We can’t, and we won’t ever be able to guarantee security 100%. However, any non-authorised intervention in the vote or the system can now be detected. That is something which is not possible with voting at the ballot box or postal votes,” she points out. 

Thanks to these developments, Geneva and Neuchâtel were authorised this year to offer electronic voting to 30% of voters residing in the canton. To offer this option to the entire electorate, the cantons must ensure “universal verifiability”, a process where observers use mathematical formulas to check whether the votes have been registered and counted correctly. 

Schwaab remains unconvinced by such developments.

“Verifiability is certainly an improvement but it doesn’t change the fact that the citizen delegates the surveillance of his vote to a computer programme that can break down or become victim to a malicious event at any time,” he says. “In the event of a problem, we cannot recount the ballots manually.” 

For his part, Grünenfelder says putting too much focus on the risks associated with e-voting overshadows the benefits that it can offer to Swiss democracy. 

“If the same security demands were required when postal voting was introduced in 1990, it would never have been allowed. But at the time, we had a courageous government,” he says.

Bern, e-voting capital

The 5th International Conference on e-Voting and IdentityExternal link takes place in Bern on September 2–5, 2015. Organised by the Bern University of Applied Sciences, the meeting is concentrating primarily on new developments in security and verifiability linked to this controversial new voting method.

Translated from French by Sophie Douez

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