Smartphone voting using biometrics and blockchain comes to W. Virginia
21 August 2018 11:57 GMT Posted by • Nicholas Clark Bryan

Military personnel who are serving overseas from West Virginia will be the first to use smartphone voting in the upcoming November U.S. federal election. They will be using an app developed by Boston, MA. based company Voatz.

Voters will take a photo of their government issue ID and then a video of their own face to register. Then facial recognition software will match the two pieces of data before the ballot is submitted.

After the ballot are submitted the ballots are made anonymous and recorded on a public blockchain using Hyperledger Fabric, an open source digital ledger framework hosted by The Linux Foundation. While blockchain first gained mainstream recognition through cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, it can be used to record a wide variety of data and is beginning to be used in digital identity applications.

The Voatz voting app was tested by West Virginian officials in two counties during the 2018 primaries. The system was put through four audits which looked at the apps components, the security of the cloud hosting solution and blockchain infrastructure, none of which revealed any problems.

As for the November elections the decision to use the new system will be left to county officials and irrespective of the county’s decision troops can still cast a paper ballot should they prefer.

Voatz’s CEO and co-founder Nimit S. Sawhney is very positive about this decision saying how he sees it as a springboard to broader use of the technology based on biometric security. A Voatz representative further said, “In our three years as a company, more than 75,000 votes have been cast on our platform, and we’ve administered more than 30 pilot elections. With each election we’ve learned something new, and we will continue to take the time necessary to ensure that the voting process is secure for voters.”

However, the positivity is not universal. Joseph Lorenzo Hall, the chief technologist at the Center for Democracy and Technology said in an e-mail to CNN that, “mobile voting is a horrific idea.” Stressing the security of devices and networks he continued, “it's internet voting on people's horribly secured devices, over our horrible networks, to servers that are very difficult to secure without a physical paper record of the vote."

Mariam Schneider, president of Verified Voting, an election integrity watchdog, was more curt, "The short answer is no" she said. Schneider did not confirm whether the app was secure or not as it had not been vetted by Verified Voting but chose to highlight that mobile voting simply presents a wider front with more opportunities for hacking or meddling. She further highlighted that there is no physical paper trail expressing concern over “undetectable changes” that could be made while the data is in transit.

Charles Stewart III, who teaches political science at MIT, was more conservative with his assessment. He praised West Virginia for being “bold” but does not think that mobile voting is ready for the main stage just yet. He added that "There is something to be said sometimes for small scale pilots where we can learn the trade-offs."

November will be the first major test of this type of system. Both those in favour and against mobile voting will be watching closely as biometrics and the blockchain, as a tools in mobile election security, are put to the test.