Tech sector pushes for e-voting, but cyber expert says slow down

Start-up entrepreneurs and tech industry leaders are calling on the federal government to invest in developing an electronic voting system, but the cyber security sector has cautioned that it's easier said than done.

June 11, 2016
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Editorial
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Written by
Financial Review
TikForce
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Published by
Financial Review
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Identity
identity, biometrics, facial recognition, verification, online, digital, compliance, cyber security, recruitment, HR, human resources, credential theft, scam, fraud, identity theft, KYC, AML,
http://www.afr.com/technology/tech-sector-pushes-for-evoting-but-cyber-expert-says-slow-down-20160704-gpy6x5
Tech sector pushes for e-voting, but cyber expert says slow down

Start-up entrepreneurs and tech industry leaders are calling on the federal government to invest in developing an electronic voting system, but the cyber security sector has cautioned that it's easier said than done.

The debate has erupted in response to the recent election saga, where it has taken the Australian Electoral Commission more than a week to finish counting the votes. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition leader Bill Shorten joined the debate on Sunday, both mentioning the need to find an e-voting solution in their victory and concession speeches, respectively.

"I have been an advocate of electronic voting for a long time...this is something we must look at," Mr Turnbull said.

Meanwhile Mr Shorten said in his speech that he would suggest to Malcolm Turnbull bipartisan cooperation to lay the groundwork for e-voting, saying it was "long overdue".

Chief executive of listed digital identification and verification company TikForce, Kevin Baum, said Australia already had the technological skills to develop an efficient and secure online voting system.

"To be honest, it's just not a technically difficult thing to do. The greater issue will be communicating the change to people to ensure people are comfortable with it. I don't think there are significant security risks that we can't manage." - Kevin Baum, TikForce

Mr Baum said if Australia had an e-voting system it would also be able to be used to run more plebiscites for little cost, giving Australians a say on important social issues, resulting in a reduction in "protest voting", that has contributed to the rise of the minor parties, such as Pauline Hanson's One Nation.

"At the moment, voters are unhappy about marriage rules, so they vote for a party based on that. If we had an online voting system we could have more regular plebiscites, so people would be able to influence government on these issues," he said.

"For major pieces of reform it should not require us to wait three years to vote on these issues for the government to have a mandate for some of these changes."

And Mr Baum is not the only one to have spoken out in support of e-voting since the election.

Australian Information Industry Association chief executive Rob Fitzpatrick is also a passionate advocate of developing a new-age voting system.

"In 2013 we spent $193 million on the election. For $200 million you can't tell me we couldn't build a great electronic voting system that deals with all the identity and security issues," he told The Australian Financial Review.

"If we'd had electronic voting we'd have had certainty as to who our Prime Minister was by 8pm [on Saturday, July 2]. Let's crack this as an issue ... and sell it to other western democracies." - Rob Fitzpatrick, Australian Information Industry Association

In 2005 Estonia became the first country to hold legally binding general elections via e-voting. The percentage of the Estonian population voting electronically rose to 30.5 per cent in the 2015 election, but the concept is yet to be adopted in other nations.

It is, however, also used in some US states and Victoria and New South Wales have electronic methods of voting for disabled voters and those who live too far away from a polling station.

But IBRS cyber security advisor James Turner said e-voting was a "messy problem", which he was not confident the government were equipped to solve.

"I love the idea of Australia being able to export some intellectual property in this space ... but we have to create a model that we have a high degree of assurance will work. Anyone can create a system they don't know how to break," he said.

"And we don't have a great track record of delivering IT infrastructure at a national level ... Look at the NBN ... I'm not confident we have the maturity as an industry to pull this off."

Mr Turner further said that the development and ongoing costs of running an e-voting platform would be extremely expensive.

"A significant amount of money would have to be invested to make sure it was as tamper proof as possible." - James Turner, IBRS

"Given an attacker would be willing to spend a lot of money [breaking into the system], you have to consider the cost vs the benefit. The current process is just a little inconvenient ... it works and the level of voter fraud is extremely low," he said.

Mr Baum highlighted that Australia had already developed e-passport readers and the myGov platform, which would have strong cyber security protections, and proposed that an e-voting system could stem from the myGov technology.

A major benefit of an e-voting system and the automatic recording of votes would be the impossibility of votes going missing – a major issue which plagued the 2013 election, wherein 1375 Senate votes from Western Australia disappeared. 

The managing director of digital agency The Gruden Group's government practice, Andrew Vidler, backed Mr Turner's view that the development of an e-voting system would be complex and costly, but said it would be possible to create.

"Is this all technologically possible without heightening the risk profile beyond that of the present paper-based model? Yes," he said.

"Is this technologically easy to design, build, roll-out and to function near-flawlessly on a given day once every three or four years per jurisdiction? No."

Mr Vidler said there were multiple ways electronic voting could work, some of which could be more controlled and did not involve citizens having a voting smartphone app.

"Firstly, there are machines [known as Optical Marking Readers or OMR] that will read the paper-based ballot papers and automatically do the counting instead of having people thumb through them counting each ballot paper and the markings of the voter," he said.

"The second broad technology that could be applied to help speed up the count would be to actually have people enter their choices into a digital ballot paper – such as using a mouse/keyboard or touch-screen interface that only allows a single vote to be made per person."

With this second option, Mr Vidler said the votes would be counted electronically, but a machine would print out the ballot slips for verification and record keeping, in case a re-count was needed. But ultimately, Mr Vidler was unconvinced that either political party had the will to invest in e-voting.

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