Blockchain technologies can reinforce voting systems, Sefcovic says

Maroš Šefčovič, Commission Vice-President for Energy Union. [EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET]

EU Energy Commissioner Maroš Šefčovič has hailed the future of blockchain technologies across the continent, citing the importance they may have in future elections, as cybersecurity experts warn about the vulnerability of the current digital voting systems.

“Blockchain can reinforce voting systems one day,” he said. “It can create less error and less fraud.”

Šefčovič’s address was delivered at the Blockwalks conference in Bratislava last week on Wednesday (10 October), which featured a range of presentations from government officials, investors, professors and developers across the tech industry.

His comments come as digital voting systems around the world have come in for heavy criticism. Cybersecurity experts have cited the insufficiency of hardware and insecure databases as factors that may allow hackers to access election data.

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Highly vulnerable to hacks

Speaking at the event, Max Kaye, CTO of the Australian firm SecureVote, a blockchain-based voting platform said Europe must modernize its elections if it is to ensure the security of its elections.

“Traditional voting systems are merely secure-by-coincidence. There’s no sensible way to deal with a potential infiltration as soon as it is detected.”

“The biggest problem with the integrity of elections is the fact that they are not verifiable. Electoral commissions can’t guarantee their own results.”

Electronic voting systems currently in use today are often based at polling stations during an election and are supervised by volunteers. These systems have historically been regarded as highly vulnerable to hacks.

Earlier this year at the world’s largest hacker conference, DEFCON, in Las Vegas, an 11-year-old boy managed to infiltrate an imitation Florida state voting website and modify the results of a mock election within 10 minutes.

“There’s no ability to react in real time,” Kaye added. “If a system is compromised, you already find out about it too late, if you find out about it at all.”

“With a blockchain-based voting system, you can find out about potential infiltrations immediately and deal with the threat as soon as it is identified.”

Complete trust in the system

Blockchain is a set of digital records connected to one another using cryptography. Each ‘block’ of data contains a unique stamp that protects it from being directly modified.

The technology has been touted as having many potential uses across a myriad of sectors ranging from financial services to healthcare to smart appliances. If one day used in electoral systems, a blockchain ledger would be able to encrypt votes, offering a completely secure and verifiable ecosystem.

According to Kaye, the system not only preserves the integrity of the democratic process, but it also offers a number of additional benefits.

“You could verify the result of an election on your iPhone. You don’t have to worry about your details being leaked. You can have complete trust in the system,” he said.

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Bridging the gap

In Europe, the development of a comprehensive blockchain infrastructure is behind that of China and the US. But the EU is making strides in attempting to bridge the gap.

As part of its endeavours in blockchain development, the European Commission earlier this year launched the EU Blockchain Observatory and Forum, that aims to, amongst other things, promote usage of the technology on the continent.

The European Blockchain Partnership declaration was also signed in April, aiming to cooperate on “developing a blockchain infrastructure that can enhance value-based, trusted, user-centric digital services across borders within the Digital Single Market.”

Bruno Alves, a policy advisor at the European Commission’s DG Connect, spoke in Bratislava about the importance of instilling a sense of confidence in connected infrastructures. “Blockchain is a technology that can support trust in digital public services,” he said. “Trust is becoming an ever important asset.”

Along the axis of bolstering trust in the field of blockchain technologies, the Commission has also sought to establish, as part of the partnership declaration, a European Blockchain Services Infrastructure which could ensure “the highest standards of security, confidentiality and personal data protection compliance.”

Trust in the integrity of election systems has also been a central theme during this week’s talks as part of the commission’s High-Level Conference examining ‘election interference in the digital age’.

Security Commissioner Julian King referred to “attacks that target systems and data to interfere with the electoral process of voting technology” as being “corrosive to public trust and confidence.”

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Even though the Commission has taken concrete steps in another area of concern, by creating a code of conduct against disinformation in order to counter the challenge of fake news, many believe that not enough has heretofore been done to ensure that the technology employed in voting machines is watertight.

Taking first steps

However, at this week’s European Council summit, the first iterations of the EU making moves in the field started to appear.

Speaking to reporters on Thursday (18 October), Council President Donald Tusk announced a common agreement to combat illegal cyber activities.

“We ask ministers to work on a sanctions regime that will be specific to cyber attack,” Tusk said. “Such a regime should help to protect our citizens, companies and institution from all kinds of cybersecurity threats.”

Do such threats include those levelled at voting systems? The conclusions published from this week’s European Council summit seem to suggest so.

Whilst the conclusions call for measures to “combat cyber and cyber-enabled illegal and malicious activities,” they also gesture towards taking steps to “protect the Union’s democratic systems…including in the context of the upcoming European elections.”

The Council’s summary also takes heed of the need to progress rapidly on the plans put forward by the commission on “election cooperation networks, online transparency, protection against cybersecurity incidents, unlawful data manipulation and fighting disinformation campaigns.”

With a burgeoning impetus to ensure that voting machines Europe-wide are sufficiently secure to guarantee the highest levels of public trust, the lure of blockchain-based systems that offer fully verifiable and unmodifiable results may be hard to ignore.

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