Can The New Kid On The Blockchain Save Democracy?

We always get this with any emerging technology don’t we?

Every time a new kid on the block arrives promising the latest and greatest in innovation, you get a boatload of annoying writers like me claiming it is the best thing since sliced bread.

Now the hottest word on everybody lips is blockchain technology. It’s pretty versatile and its properties make it work for almost any industry. I’ve written quite a bit about how it can save democracy, transform healthcare and the economic system.

Some say it can even save democracy itself. But can it?

I still remember when Facebook was first introduced to the world in 2004. It didn’t take long for it to be praised as being the platform that would give the entire world a voice. In the decade that followed, more voices appeared on the scene praising Facebook and other social media platforms for democratising society.

It was argued that the good ol’ boy network of big media corporations would be disrupted by the radical voices of the common man on social media. We saw news stories about how protests were springing up all over the world thanks to the newfound freedom of social media. Then Cambridge Analytica came along and put a spanner in the works. People started to wonder whether the big media giants were helping to control social media after all.

So my point is, are we seeing the same trends with blockchain technology?

There’s quite a bit of fuss at the moment about how the blockchain can save our votes.

But can blockchain technology really bring an end to tyranny? Or is this just another social media lie?

Well to answer this question, let’s first take a look at what blockchain technology is and why people think it will change democracy for the better. This will hopefully bring us to the answer: is blockchain the panacea to democracy?

Who is this new kid on the block(chain)?

I know, I know, it’s a bad pun and a little bit of a dad joke. But blockchain technology is the underlying infrastructure that cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin are built upon.

Here’s how it works:

Blockchain is shorthand for a whole suite of distributed ledger technologies that can be programmed to record and track anything of value, from financial transactions to votes or even land titles. The way it tracks and stores data is unique.

Information is stored in blocks that are linked together in a chronological fashion to form a continuous line, metaphorically known as a chain of blocks.

If that data or information is changed, it does not get rewritten. Instead, it is stored in a new block. All of the data is timestamped and immutable. The technology is based on the centuries-old method of the general financial ledger. It is a non-destructive way to track data changes over time.

For example, imagine that a political candidate has been accused of voter fraud by their opponent. Now imagine that all of the votes, along with the total count was stored on the blockchain. The original voter count was stored on January 1st. Then on January 7th we can see that a new record has been created, which displays a much higher vote count, but this is not reflected in the actual number of people who voted.

We can also track the origin of some of the votes to see whether they came from actual people or whether they actually derive from records of people who either do not exist or are not eligible to vote.

It would thus be easy to prove fraud or malpractice, in the same way it would be easy to demonstrate innocence.

However, here is where things get really interesting.

Decentralisation

Unlike the traditional ledger method where files are stored on a single system, the blockchain was designed to be decentralised and distributed among a large network of computers. This decentralisation makes it harder to tamper with the data. This brings us to the second unique feature of blockchain technology and that is: trust.

Proof-of-work

Before a block can be added to the chain, a few things need to happen.

First, a cryptographic puzzle must be solved to create a block. The computer that solves the puzzle, then shares the information with all of the other computers on the network (known as nodes).

This is called proof-of-work. The network will then verify this proof-of-work and if it is correct, a block will be added to the chain.

Once those details have been processed via the cryptographic puzzle, the algorithm then provides the user with a unique output called a hash. Only the hash is stored on the blockchain and not the transaction information. This ensures privacy.

The combination of these complex maths puzzles and the verification of information by many different computers ensures that we can trust each and every block (of information) on the chain. This is because the network does the trust-building for us. This also gives us the opportunity to interact with our data in real-time.

Peer-to-peer

In the business world, we rely on trusted intermediaries to safeguard and hold our financial and business records. Instead, banks or lawyers are used to manage and keep our records confidential.

These intermediaries build trust and can help to verify the information to third parties. The system limits exposure and risk but it does mean that more time and money is spent.

However, blockchain technology can cut out the middle man as information can be checked and verified without exposing confidential details. This type of peer-to-peer interaction can revolutionise the way we access, verify and transact with one another.

Implementation

It’s also important to understand that blockchain is a type of technology and not a single network. Therefore, it can be implemented in many different ways and is adaptable to many real-world situations.

Some blockchains can be public and open for anyone to view. On the other hand, others may be private and only open to a select group of authorised users, such as banks, companies or governments. There are also public-private blockchains, where some can see all the data, while the public can only see a selection of data. In other hybrid blockchain systems, the public can see all the data, but only authorised people can add new data.

For example, some blockchain voting software will allow the public to see the total number of votes and how many votes each candidate has while keeping the names and details of voters private.

All of the above factors can radically change the way we transact and interact with one another.

But like any (relatively) new kid on the block, this distributed ledger technology will give rise to all kinds of questions regarding security, regulation, international law and economics.

Perhaps one of the most important questions is: can it repair democracy?

How can blockchain technology change democracy for the better?

Blockchain technology does a great job of balancing transparency with privacy. The transparency is built into the blockchain thanks to its distributed verification system and the cryptographic algorithms that help to reduce privacy breaches.

These are qualities which are particularly important when it comes to voting, and indeed, democracy itself.

A traditional voting system relies upon a paper ballot. You register beforehand with the relevant authorities, and when it’s time to actually cast your vote, you simply mark your choices on an anonymous paper ballot.

The modern equivalent of that is digitised voting, where you punch your choice into the system and your vote is recorded.

The problem with these systems is they are open to tampering and corruption. Numbers can be changed, human error can skew the results and centralised third parties oversee the management and control of both types of systems.

But with blockchain technology, it works a little differently.

A voter casts his vote and it gets recorded on the blockchain. It then gets encrypted and distributed anonymously to other computers within the network. Its authenticity gets verified once all of the other nodes authenticate the information. This makes it difficult to tamper with the results.

But what about reducing fraud and corruption? How do we know that all of those voters are real?

So a voter submits their details to the system. This could then be verified by a blockchain network (as discussed above). Once the voter identity has been verified, smart contracts could then be used to issue a ballot so that a voter can cast a vote and submit it to the ballot box. A smart contract is a piece of code written into a computer program that automatically enforces any agreement made once a triggering event occurs.

The immutability of the system can ensure that only one vote counts for every person that selects a candidate. In other words, voters cannot cast two votes. However, flexibility could be built into the system to allow voters to change their minds before the final deadline. When a new vote is cast, this is verified and the old vote is automatically invalidated.

This would ensure that votes are accurately recorded and make it impossible to change the result. It would also make it a little more difficult for one centralised party alone to gain control over the recording of the results.

Examples of blockchain voting systems

Follow My Vote

Follow My Vote is an open-source piece of blockchain software that aims to radically change the way we vote. The technology aims to mathematically prove that the results of the election are accurate.

Users must submit their government-issued ID before they can vote. The system software also has a webcam. The voting ID allows users to track their vote and check that it has been recorded accurately.

If a user changes their mind about a particular candidate, they can update their choice on the system, which will ensure that the new choice replaces the old one and that a user’s vote will only count once.

During voter registration, the voter uses their key to encrypt and verify their ID on the system, which certifies their first key pair. Once this has been done, the voter registers a second key pair anonymously.

When the voter casts their virtual ballot and signs off on the vote with their private key, anyone can verify whether the vote is valid or not and make sure that none of the signatures have been tampered with.

Voatz

A similar system is deployed by Voatz, a platform that makes it possible to vote from a mobile, desktop or tablet device by leveraging the security built into the latest versions of smartphone technology.

It was used by West Virginia state to allow overseas voters to cast absentee ballots for the midterm elections in 2018.

Is Blockchain Technology A Vote For Democracy?

The biggest problem connected with traditional voting systems is that they are open to corruption. Votes can be miscounted and citizens can be intimidated at the ballot box. After all, it is a little bit distracting to vote if a guy in a mask is standing over your shoulder and directing your hands.

Just kidding.

But seriously though, after George Bush was elected in 2000, many opponents accused him of rigging votes and striking eligible African-Americans off of the register and claiming votes from people who were deceased. The same accusations have plagued Trump, who himself has accused the process of being corrupted.

And that’s just in supposedly developed countries.

In some third-world countries, the voting system is even less sophisticated. Venezuela is one such example of this. Elections in Kenya have been plagued by similar claims.

There are countries where there really is a guy watching your every move when you cast your vote.

Will there ever be an end to this madness?

Some people say that blockchain technology is the panacea that will finally bring an end to rigged democracy.

To understand why they think that, let’s look at its advantages.

Blockchain technology allows voters to make their decision from the comfort of their own homes. Citizens only need to access their devices to cast their votes. No more long queues and waiting lines to perform your civic duty. It has the ability to authenticate the identity of citizens without compromising their privacy.

So goodbye to that masked man at the ballot box.

It also avoids the problem of citizens not being allowed to take time off work to vote.

Blockchain voting also affords citizens the freedom to change their minds. Once you put that piece of paper in the ballot box, you can’t then go back, take it out again and make another decision before the deadline. If you tried, you’d probably be arrested. But of course, you can do that with blockchain tech.

But perhaps the biggest plus for voters is that you can electronically make sure that your vote was counted as intended. One of the biggest causes of voter apathy is the belief that your vote won’t count, or that it will be miscounted.

Blockchain technology avoids this problem because you are able to track your vote and ensure that it was cast as intended. The open-source nature of the technology ensures the validity of the system and the results can be updated in real-time.

For example, maybe 100,000 people voted for candidate X. But according to the polls, only 30,000 voted for that candidate. On the blockchain, it is quick and easy to accurately track how many votes a candidate gained and expose any discrepancy in the system.

But voters are not the only ones who get kickbacks.

Candidates may also be somewhat immunised from accusations of fraud and corruption — because it’d be very easy to track and trace the process. The election results would be made immediate — conceding to an opponent would be just that little bit easier if at the very least you knew that the results were accurate.

Another big plus is that blockchain technology saves the environment right? No more paper ballots. Hmm.

So what’s not to love?

Is Blockchain Technology All It’s Cracked Up To Be?

But maybe all isn’t well on the blockchain. If you read any of what I wrote above you could be forgiven for thinking that blockchain technology is the answer to all of our problems.

Yay. No more rigged elections!

But not all security experts agree. Some even argue that it could bring a whole new set of problems to the democratic process and create more issues than it solves.

According to Jeremy Epstein, vice chairman of the Association for Computing Machinery’s U.S. Technology Policy Committee, foreign intelligence and hackers could compromise the security of blockchain technology.

In a report entitled, ‘ Email and Internet Voting: The Overlooked Threat to Election Security ‘, Epstein argues that malware on a voter’s computer could potentially compromise the integrity of the vote.

Furthermore, blockchain systems are not immune to hacking. We’ve seen this with the famous hacks of the Mt Gox Exchange in which nearly half a billion dollars were lost, and The DAO hack where more than $50 million was lost.

But if a voting system got hacked, then everyone’s vote could become public. This could spell big trouble in a country where there really isn’t that much of a choice.

Other security experts have taken aim at the very idea that some of these blockchain voting systems are decentralised. An organisation called Verified Voting said that some blockchain voting systems are not truly decentralised because the different computers used to verify information are themselves controlled by centralised companies like Voatz.

Might it be possible to imagine a future where some of these blockchain voting software developers become compromised by vested interests? Let’s be clear — I’m not saying they are — but it certainly raises an interesting question for the future.

Matt Blaze, a cryptography and security researcher at the University of Pennsylvania also voiced his concerns about the security of blockchain solutions. He testified before Congress in 2017 when he gave a talk about election cybersecurity.

He believes that protecting voting systems against fraud “is more easily, simply, and securely done with other approaches”.

But at least a blockchain voting system is more environmentally friendly, right?

You’ll notice that I said ‘hmm’ above when talking about how blockchain systems are more energy-efficient.

This is because blockchain technology itself uses vast amounts of energy. Every blockchain node runs a copy of the blockchain and every computer on the network repeats the same task.

As a result, electricity and costs increase significantly due to the number of resources needed to power the systems. So while skimping on the paper ballots may help to save the trees, the energy-intensive nature of the electronics needed to keep the system ticking over probably offsets the benefits a little.

So What’s The Verdict?

Blockchain voting certainly seems very promising. It helps to sidestep the bullies at the ballot box and gives dutiful citizens an easy, private and convenient way to cast their vote.

This is particularly important in countries where voter intimidation is a real threat to democracy.

But perhaps a somewhat underestimated threat to democracy is the whole issue of counting the votes. Even in developed Western countries where citizens have more rights, there is still widespread mistrust in the system.

So if the blockchain gives us an unshakeable, immutable and foolproof way to alleviate those concerns, then maybe this fairly recent technological discovery will help to save our democracy after all.

But the problem is, it’s not foolproof. Nothing is.

Systems can be hacked, vested interests can sidestep protocols and online voting opens up a whole new can of worms.

We saw this giddy excitement with Facebook — which was born just a few years before the widespread adoption of the blockchain. Everyone said the social giant would give a voice to the voiceless. Then Cambridge Analytica came along and snatched those voices away.

Now we are hearing the first murmurs of uncertainty with the blockchain. But that’s not the real problem is it?

The real problem is human nature. While it would be great to find an invention that protects us from the charlatans, the truth is that no computer system in the world can save us from ourselves.

That sounds kind of bleak, but it’s not the end of the line for blockchain tech. After all, it’s still pretty much in its infancy, and new improvements are being made to the technology all the time.

So the verdict is that blockchain technology isn’t foolproof — but frankly, nor is the ballot box.

And some of the problems blockchain technology solves — accurately recording results, making it safe and convenient for voters and introducing transparency — are pretty high up on the scale of importance.

For this reason, it certainly holds a lot of promise — but the kinks will need to be ironed out first before we put our democracy on the blockchain.

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.

Jan is a journalist, copywriter and human rights activist who has worked for regional newspapers, marketing agencies across the world.