High tech voting: will a mobile app using biometrics & blockchain secure our elections?

The midterm elections are a month away.  Yet our voting machines are outdated and our election processes remain vulnerable.  We are woefully unprepared to deal with the cyberattacks that the intelligence community has been sounding the alarm on for some time.

The money Congress threw at the problem, $380 million to be exact, was too little and came in too late.  The Secure Elections Act, a bill that aimed to protect against cyberattacks, collapsed in August before it could be voted on.  It didn’t gain enough support despite being led by both a Republican and a Democrat – a rarity in today’s toxic hyper partisan climate.

So where do things stand now?  Pretty much where they were before the 2016 presidential election.  At this point in time, we have no choice but to hold our breath and hope for the best in November.  The lack of progress on an issue as important as protecting our elections … our sovereignty, is baffling.  As a technologist, when faced with a problem I remain steadfast on solving it.  If I can’t reach the end goal in one phase, I devise a multi-phased approach and get to work on tackling it.  What I don’t do is put the problem on the back burner and wait until it’s too late to do something about it.

I’m not saying that there’s an easy fix to securing our elections.  The US elections systems are complicated and decentralized; each state has its own unique way of doing things.  But to step up to the challenge, we need to make this issue the priority that it deserves to be.  A solution that makes the voting process more secure, efficient, convenient and easily auditable IS attainable.  The way I see it, the reason why a solution hasn’t been reached has to do with the nature of politics itself.  Sometimes politics gets in the way of progress.  It’s where competing agendas meet and where too often, the underlying goal has more to do with safeguarding one’s position rather than doing the right thing.

In light of this political gridlock, people less interested in a political seat e.g. techies, should play a larger role in securing our elections.  West Virginia’s officials seemingly agree with this sentiment because they partnered with Voatz, a small tech startup, to pilot a mobile voting app.  In November, military personnel based overseas will have the option to cast their votes on this app.  This is notable because West Virginia is the first state ever to allow mobile voting.

How it works

The app requires that users identify themselves with their fingerprints before allowing them to vote on mobile ballots.  It then sends the voting information to a private blockchain (aka a distributed ledger) where the data is verified and stored.  Apparently, risks raised by cyber security professionals led to the decision to use a blockchain.  The concept of using a distributed ledger to securely store and track voting data isn’t new and it makes a lot of sense.  However, the glaring risk here is that the app isn’t on the blockchain, it connects to it.  As a result, the data is susceptible to tampering while its traveling from the phone to the ledger.  For this reason, other states looking for a more secure election system may not want to jump on Voatz’s bandwagon.  Nonetheless, West Virginia is making strides to prepare for future elections.  No matter the outcome, we can learn a lesson from this pilot and that in itself is useful and a step forward.

Mobile voting using biometrics and a blockchain is arriving just in time for the midterms; this is one to keep an eye on!


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