Blockchain In Voting

Would blockchain solve voting issues in the United States? As it is now 2024 and the US is still concerned about embarrassing itself again trying to count votes weeks after elections, and insure accuracy and security. Would employing blockchain technology solve these issues once and for all? Surprisingly, the answer is no. And, apparently it is not really even debated.

A real quick rundown of what could go wrong. The use of blockchains does nothing to reverse any of the following cybersecurity problems that show up in all forms of Internet voting. (An FYI, the definitions are pulled from the links below and they are a little wordy.)

  • No reliable voter identification (authentication): Without strong cryptographic infrastructure that does not currently exist in the U.S. there is no foolproof way to determine exactly who is trying to vote remotely over the Internet. All known and proposed identification methods have grave weaknesses. Passwords are notoriously unreliable for many reasons. Birthdates, SSNs, driver’s license numbers and other personal information cannot be used because they have been stolen for tens of millions of voters many times in major data breaches such as those at OPM, Equifax, Heartland, and Yahoo. Biometric identification does not work through the Internet because election officials do not have databases of voter biometric information to match against. Facial photo-based methods are not standardized, are forgeable, and have high error rates even when there is no deliberate attempt to fool them, especially for minority ethnicities.

Voter identification and authorization has to be complete before there is any consideration of adding the voter’s ballot to the blockchain. The blockchain does not help with this step.

  • MalwareIn online voting systems voters fill out and cast ballots from their own personal devices. Those devices may be infected by low-level malware or a malicious counterfeit voting app. It is well within the capability of a foreign state to spread malware to millions of devices, but there is no reliable way to tell whether or not a device is infected. All malware detection systems are fundamentally imperfect and limited.

Malware could change votes invisibly inside the voting device even before they are transmitted. Or it might silently discard the ballot, or send the voter’s name and vote choices to a third party, enabling coercion, retaliation, vote buying and selling, or pre-counting of votes. Blockchains cannot address the many threats that malware poses because the harm is done long before the ballot gets to any of the blockchain co-owners.

  • Denial of service (DoS) attacks: A server can be overwhelmed with fake traffic from a botnet (a large number of Internet-connected devices remotely controlled without the owners’ consent) so that real ballots cannot get through. Such attacks have occurred in real elections in Arizona (2000), Ontario (2003, 2012) and Hong Kong (2012). Much of the online infrastructure of Estonia was brought to a halt for days in 2007 by DoS attacks from Russia. And on Oct. 21, 2016, the Mirai botnet attacked Dyn (a major Domain Name System (DNS) provider), making dozens of the world’s most highly trafficked web sites inaccessible. DoS attacks happen every day to smaller targets and are among the easiest of all cyberattacks to perpetrate.

There is no ironclad defense against DoS attacks, and nothing prevents such an attack from disrupting a blockchain voting system. Although blockchains use multiple redundant servers they offer no additional protection against DoS attacks beyond what is achievable for a conventional server with the same aggregate communication capacity.

  • Penetration attacksNo servers, including blockchain servers, are immune to remote penetration and surreptitious takeover by determined sophisticated attackers. A penetration attack on vote servers was famously demonstrated in 2010 by University of Michigan professor Alex Halderman, who gained total remote control of the election servers during a test of a Washington, DC Internet voting system. The attack went undetected for days. Foreign adversaries have gained control of various other servers in the U.S. many times, including the Illinois State voter registration database.

In both the multiple- and single-owner cases blockchains use multiple servers. But if attackers can disable or gain control of a large enough fraction of those servers they can disrupt or control the outcome of the election, perhaps undetectably and most likely uncorrectable. The single-owner blockchain strategy is especially vulnerable to penetration because an attack that works on one server will probably work on all.  

  • Nonauditability: Paper ballots and hand auditing of machine counts are by far the best cyber defense we have for elections. But online voting systems, including blockchain systems, do not allow for true, voter-verified paper ballots that are essential for meaningful recounts, audits, and statistical spot checks. Thus, the most powerful and common-sense tools we have for protecting elections against cyberattacks of all kinds are unavailable in blockchain elections.

So what is the answer? The consensus from professionals is, that still, the most secure voting system is a completely paper ballot election with many audits on the system to ensure security and accuracy.

(One interesting point, not that it applies to the discussion of if it should be used to avoid corruption, is that blockchain would allow for a person to change their vote. So if early voting was in play, a person could reverse an early vote if new information came out.)

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