Category Archives: Electronic voting

Electoral Commission releases e-voting and e-counting reports

Today, the Electoral Commission released their evaluation reports on the May 2007 e-voting and e-counting pilots held in England. Each of the pilot areas has a report from the Electoral Commission and the e-counting trials are additionally covered by technical reports from Ovum, the Electoral Commission’s consultants. Each of the changes piloted receives its own summary report: electronic counting, electronic voting, advanced voting and signing in polling stations. Finally, there are a set of key findings, both from the Electoral Commission and from Ovum.

Richard Clayton and I acted as election observers for the Bedford e-counting trial, on behalf of the Open Rights Group, and our discussion of the resulting report can be found in an earlier post. I also gave a talk on a few of the key points.

The Commission’s criticism of e-counting and e-voting was scathing; concerning the latter saying that the “security risk involved was significant and unacceptable.” They recommend against further trials until the problems identified are resolved. Quality assurance and planning were found to be inadequate, predominantly stemming from insufficient timescales. In the case of the six e-counting trials, three were abandoned, two were delayed, leaving only one that could be classed as a success. Poor transparency and value for money are also cited as problems. More worryingly, the Commission identify a failure to learn from the lessons of previous pilot programmes.

The reports covering the Bedford trials largely match my personal experience of the count and add some details which were not available to the election observers (in particular, explaining that the reason for some of the system shutdowns was to permit re-configuration of the OCR algorithms, and that due to delays at the printing contractor, no testing with actual ballot papers was performed). One difference is that the Ovum report was more generous than the Commission report regarding the candidate perceptions, saying “Apart from the issue of time, none of the stakeholders questioned the integrity of the system or the results achieved.” This discrepancy could be because the Ovum and Commission representatives left before the midnight call for a recount, by candidates who had lost confidence in the integrity of the results.

There is much more detail to the reports than I have been able to summarise here, so if you are interested in electronic elections, I suggest you read them yourselves.

The Open Rights Group has in general welcomed the Electoral Commission’s report, but feel that the inherent problems resulting from the use of computers in elections have not been fully addressed. The results of the report have also been covered by the media, such as the BBC: “Halt e-voting, says election body” and The Guardian: “Electronic voting not safe, warns election watchdog”.

The role of software engineering in electronic elections

Many designs for trustworthy electronic elections use cryptography to assure participants that the result is accurate. However, it is a system’s software engineering that ensures a result is declared at all. Both good software engineering and cryptography are thus necessary, but so far cryptography has drawn more attention. In fact, the software engineering aspects could be just as challenging, because election systems have a number of properties which make them almost a pathological case for robust design, implementation, testing and deployment.

Currently deployed systems are lacking in both software robustness and cryptographic assurance — as evidenced by the English electronic election fiasco. Here, in some cases the result was late and in others the electronic count was abandoned due to system failures resulting from poor software engineering. However, even where a result was returned, the black-box nature of auditless electronic elections brought the accuracy of the count into doubt. In the few cases where cryptography was used it was poorly explained and didn’t help verify the result either.

End-to-end cryptographically assured elections have generated considerable research interest and the resulting systems, such as Punchscan and Prêt à Voter, allow voters to verify the result while maintaining their privacy (provided they understand the maths, that is — the rest of us will have to trust the cryptographers). These systems will permit an erroneous result to be detected after the election, whether caused by maliciousness or more mundane software flaws. However should this occur, or if a result is failed to be returned at all, the election may need to fall back on paper backups or even be re-run — a highly disruptive and expensive failure.

Good software engineering is necessary but, in the case of voting systems, may be especially difficult to achieve. In fact, such systems have more similarities to the software behind rocket launches than more conventional business productivity software. We should thus expect the consequential high costs and, despite all this extra effort, that the occasional catastrophe will be inevitable. The remainder of this post will discuss why I think this is the case, and how manually-counted paper ballots circumvent many of these difficulties.

Continue reading The role of software engineering in electronic elections

Recent talks: Chip & PIN, traffic analysis, and voting

In the past couple of months, I’ve presented quite a few talks, and in the course of doing so, travelled a lot too (Belgium and Canada last month; America and Denmark still to come). I’ve now published my slides from these talks, which might also be of interest to Light Blue Touchpaper readers, so I’ll summarize the contents here.

Two of the talks were on Chip & PIN, the UK deployment of EMV. The first presentation — “Chip and Spin” — was for the Girton village Neighbourhood Watch meeting. Girton was hit by a spate of card-cloning, eventually traced back to a local garage, so they invited me to give a fairly non-technical overview of the problem. The slides served mainly as an introduction to a few video clips I showed, taken from TV programmes in which I participated. [slides (PDF 1.1M)]

The second Chip & PIN talk was to the COSIC research group at K.U. Leuven. Due to the different audience, this presentation — “EMV flaws and fixes: vulnerabilities in smart card payment systems” — was much more technical. I summarized the EMV protocol, described a number of weaknesses which leave EMV open to attack, along with corresponding defences. Finally, I discussed the more general problem with EMV — that customers are in a poor position to contest fraudulent transactions — and how this situation can be mitigated. [slides (PDF 1.4M)]

If you are interested in further details, much of the material from both of my Chip & PIN talks is discussed in papers from our group, such as “Chip and SPIN“, “The Man-in-the-Middle Defence” and “Keep Your Enemies Close: Distance bounding against smartcard relay attacks

Next I went to Ottawa for the PET Workshop (now renamed the PET Symposium). Here, I gave three talks. The first was for a panel session — “Ethics in Privacy Research”. Since this was a discussion, the slides aren’t particularly interesting but it will hopefully be the subject of an upcoming paper.

Then I gave a short talk at WOTE, on my experiences as an election observer. I summarized the conclusions of the Open Rights Group report (released the day before my talk) and added a few personal observations. Richard Clayton discussed the report in the previous post. [slides (PDF 195K)]

Finally, I presented the paper written by Piotr Zieliński and me — “Sampled Traffic Analysis by Internet-Exchange-Level Adversaries”, which I previously mentioned in a recent post. In the talk I gave a graphical summary of the paper’s key points, which I hope will aid in understanding the motivation of the paper and the traffic analysis method we developed. [slides (PDF 2.9M)]

"No confidence" in eVoting pilots

Back on May 3rd, Steven Murdoch, Chris Wilson and myself acted as election observers for the Open Rights Group (ORG) and looked at the conduct of the parish, council and mayoral elections in Bedford. Steven and I went back again on the 4th to observe their “eCounting” of the votes. In fact, we were still there on the 5th at half-one in the morning when the final result was declared after over fifteen hours.

Far from producing faster, more accurate, results, the eCounting was slower and left everyone concerned with serious misgivings — and no confidence whatsoever that the results were correct.

Today ORG launches its collated report into all of the various eVoting and eCounting experiments that took place in May — documenting the fiascos that occurred not only in Bedford but also in every other place that ORG observed. Their headline conclusion is “The Open Rights Group cannot express confidence in the results for areas observed” — which is pretty damning.

In Bedford, we noted that prior to the shambles on the 4th of May the politicians and voters we talked to were fairly positive about “e” elections — seeing it as inevitable progress. When things started to go wrong they then changed their minds…

However, there isn’t any “progress” here, and almost everyone technical who has looked at voting systems is concerned about them. The systems don’t work very well, they are inflexible, they are poorly tested and they are badly designed — and then when legitimate doubts are raised as to their integrity there is no way to examine the systems to determine that they’re working as one would hope.

We rather suspect that people are scared of being seen as Luddites if they don’t embrace “new technology” — whereas more technical people, who are more confident of their knowledge, are prepared to assess these systems on their merits, find them sadly lacking, and then speak up without being scared that they’ll be seen as ignorant.

The ORG report should go some way to helping everyone understand a little more about the current, lamentable, state of the art — and, if only just a little common sense is brought to bear, should help kill off e-Elections in the UK for a generation.

Here’s hoping!