Voting technology: are we compromising security for modernity?

By: Molly Kehoe

In the age of constant technological developments, digitized voting systems are a long time coming. This year two attempts to implement voting applications have failed. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political party, Likud, tried to put a voting app in place for the March 2nd election. In early February an independent programmer noticed a breach in the system, which held personal information of every registered voter in Israel. It is speculated that the breach could have caused a leak in this information;  more than six million people, including important Israeli leaders, had their names, addresses and other identifying information stored on through this app. An anonymous source told Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper, that they were able to view this information within the app. The problem was fixed, however Likud prepared for the possible consequences of the information being publicly leaked. 

The Iowa caucuses in early February also faced extreme backlash for their app’s flop. The app created for the caucus had a coding error that culminated in the reporting of results to be extremely delayed. This caused confusion and frustration, though it compromised none of the votes.

These errors raise fears about the future of voting technology and user privacy. With international controversy regarding election security — think Russian interference in US elections amongst other historical examples — this modern fear strikes a very particular nerve.  Since modern technology develops at such a fast pace, it’s hard to keep up with the new ethical implications that can arise. The United Nations tracks which countries have enacted privacy laws to protect data and citizens; sixty-four percent of countries—107 countries—currently have privacy laws in place. How effective can these laws be when technology fails?

In Israel it is safe to assume that the intent was not to make the data of millions of citizens accessible to everyone. There is only so much predictability when it comes to new programs, so how do we counteract the possibility that things might not go according to plan? In medicine, new drugs are tested through extensive clinical trials, and there are arduous processes in place to get something FDA approved. This is done in an effort to protect citizens’ health. Elections should be held to a similar standard: their security is crucial and non-negotiable because it influences the health of a democracy.

Elections have been conducted traditionally—without digital applications—forever. While the fears of foreign interference have always been relevant, the actual tabulation method wasn’t the source of those issues: democratic systems were. The introduction of apps in these voting processes are another modern way to streamline information and increase efficiency. While that is noble, as calculating election results is no doubt a thankless task, it also isn’t necessary. 

When it comes to democracies all over the world, the emphasis must be on security. Efficiency is clearly a goal, however it can’t be prioritized at the expense of user data privacy. Is this going to be the one area where the global community must agree to compromise modernity for security?