Ex-MI6 Boss: When It Comes To Voting, Pencil And Paper Are 'Much More Secure' Than Electronic Systems

from the and-he-should-know dept

Techdirt has been worried by problems of e-voting systems for a long time now. Before, that was just one of our quaint interests, but over the last few months, the issue of e-voting, and how secure it is from hacking, specifically hacking by foreign powers, has become a rather hot topic. It's great that the world has finally caught up with Techdirt, and realized that e-voting is not just some neat technology, and now sees that democracy itself is at play. The downside is that because the stakes are so high, the level of noise is too, and it's really hard to work out how worried we should be about recent allegations, and what's the best thing to do on the e-voting front.

What we really need is someone distant from the current US debate, and yet with a great deal of knowledge of how foreign intelligence services hack into computer systems. Maybe someone like Sir John Sawers, former head of MI6, the UK's CIA. Here's what he said recently to the BBC on the subject of e-voting:

"Bizarrely the stubby pencil and piece of paper that you put your cross on in the ballot box is actually much more secure than anything which is electronic."

And added:

"The more things that go online, the more susceptible you are to cyber attacks."

Since MI6 has probably been involved in quite a few of those attacks, Sir John speaks with a certain authority. He also has a good analysis of why there is this constant push for e-voting, even though security experts are pretty unanimous in their warnings of the dangers:

"The only trouble is, the younger generation of people expect to be able to do things remotely and through electronic devices."

That also goes some way to explaining the naivety of most people when it comes to the Internet of Things. Many people just "expect" everything to be digital and online and linked to its own app, even when it's just a hair brush.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and +glynmoody on Google+

Filed Under: cybersecurity, e-voting, evoting, john sawers, mi6, security, uk


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  1. identicon
    Anon, 5 Jan 2017 @ 1:25pm

    Of course!

    Canada mainly uses paper ballots, and guess what? The results are pretty well tabulated within a few hours for a country of 34 million; and recounts are simple and reliable.

    The biggest reason why is simple. In a federal election, like Britain, we only have one vote- "Who do you want for Member of Parliament of your riding?"

    None of this American stupidity of so many votes, you even elect judges, sheriffs and dog catchers; ballots so big you need a butterfly ballot and a serious concern is that people can't follow a line across a page because the print is so small.

    My ideal electronic system would be simple too - you select your votes on a computer, the computer then spits out paper ballots marked accordingly with both machine readable and bar-code values. You can count the votes using sheet feeder and barcode reader, but can validate any results by comparing bar-codes and text. (Or use a sorter - if you suspect hacking, sort all the ballots for A by bar code into one bin, then flip through them to look for incorrect text). Paper is solid and indelible. Unregistered people who sign in could have their ballot coded to allow for retroactive (in)validation of their vote, while registered voters retain anonymous ballots. Time-stamp ballots to a 5-minute range or 20-voter range to allow tracking of ballots watching for box stuffing.

    However, the biggest problem with US elections? NOT ENOUGH POLLING STATIONS. In Canada, typically every neighbourhood school is a polling place. American polling stations seem to have several times more people in line at any one time than my whole polling station is set for.

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