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21 JUNE 2024

Researchers have developed secure digital voting booths – but will voters trust blockchain?

For the first time, researchers at Aarhus University and Lars Seier Christensen’s Concordium have demonstrated the security of blockchain software for conducting secure online elections. The challenge now lies in fostering trust in the technology.

Photo: Department of Computer Science, Aarhus University. From left: Bas Spitters, Benjamin Salling Hvass, Lasse Letager Hansen, Eske Hoy Nielsen

The 2024 election year is set to be historic, with half of the world’s population voting in political elections. However, amidst geopolitical tensions and rapid technological advancements, concerns persist about the accuracy of vote counting and the fair distribution of power, free from external interference.

How can we ensure that important elections are as secure as possible, whether for the chairman of a chess club or the President of the United States? And can this be achieved online?

Elections require a secure database and, with its cryptographic foundations, blockchain technology offers a highly secure solution. In 2023, Aarhus University and the Alexandra Institute received 1.8 million DKK from DIREC for the project Verified Voting Protocols and Blockchains. This project aims to rigorously test the encrypted protocols that will be the backbone of secure online elections in the future.

Bas Spitters, an associate professor at Aarhus University and head of the Concordium Blockchain Research Center (CoBRA), leads the project, which is nearing completion. Alongside the PhD students Lasse Letager Hansen and Eske Hoy Nielsen, he has mathematically proven that the blockchain protocol OpenVoteNetwork is correctly implemented and encrypted to a degree suitable for use in elections. This marks the first time a blockchain protocol and its software implementation has been mathematically secured and verified.

“We employ best practices in cryptography and programming languages to ensure that the protocol is secure. As a result, we can now confirm that the protocol’s security is completely mathematically proven,” says Bas Spitters.

Enhancing election security across all sectors

In an era where digital self-service is standard in public administration, physical ballots remain a steadfast tradition. However, in recent years, there has been growing interest in internet-based voting among election commissions worldwide.

Countries like Switzerland, Estonia, Brazil, and India are experimenting with online parliamentary elections. This solution is also highly relevant for elections in municipalities, corporations, and universities, which currently lack robust online security.

The issue is that many current internet-based elections are flawed because their security cannot be verified. Therefore, they are vulnerable to external interference, and voters are uncertain if their votes are accurately counted. The same problem applies to postal voting, which countries like France are exploring for online implementation.

“If you vote by mail, you need to cast your vote well in advance, which means you miss out on a significant portion of the political debate. You also rely on the security of the postal service and every subsequent step. However, with a secure online protocol that meets the highest standards, you can vote on the day of the election via the internet and even receive proof that your vote has been counted,” says Bas Spitters.

Building industry trust

The Verified Voting Protocols and Blockchains project is a collaboration between Aarhus University and the Alexandra Institute, and it is also attracting interest from the industry.

The Swiss blockchain company Concordium, founded and chaired by the Danish entrepreneur Lars Seier Christensen, is an industry partner in the project and plans to use the protocol for internal company voting. In collaboration with Aarhus University and Benjamin Salling Hvass from the Alexandra Institute, researchers have integrated a verified cryptographic library into Microsoft’s ElectionGuard voting software, which Concordium can now utilize.

With the mathematical proof established, the software can swiftly be adapted to manage election scenarios beyond those at Concordium. Whether the general public will vote for their political candidates online is simply a matter of trust, explains Daniel Tschudi, Senior Researcher at Concordium:

“Ballots are easy to trust because we rely on officials and election monitors to uphold security. Trusting new technology, even when mathematically proven secure, presents greater challenges. Ultimately, it’s about building trust in the technology and the security standards which researchers have developed and tested.”

The project aims to influence the minimum security requirements for online voting. Daniel Tschudi is confident that the researchers’ accomplishments will resonate widely:

“Once the protocol is thoroughly verified and certified to the highest standards, it can be applied to elections across all societal sectors,” he concludes.
The Verified Voting Protocols and Blockchains project is scheduled for completion in 2025. Read more about the project here.

This news article was brought in ITWatch on 18 June 2024