Bahrain Balderdash

Bahrain Sheik Anyone who has visited the Middle East even a little (my grand total out there is 8 days so far) won’t be surprised by the gushing enthusiasm of Bahrain E-Voting Forum’s concluding recommendations. They love their reports one-sided and upbeat. So allow me to provide some balance…

1 It has been proven beyond any doubt that technology exist today to effectively enable and run e-voting.

Not true at all. Most computer scientists still see fundamental theoretical barriers in current technology which prevent the proper implementation of secure and anonymous e-voting systems. One of the best examples of this view is expressed by Bruce Schneier in this article which concludes:

“Building a secure Internet-based voting system is a very hard problem, harder than all the other computer security problems we’ve attempted and failed at. I believe that the risks to democracy are too great to attempt it.”

Avi Rubin also has an excellent paper on why remote e-voting in particular isn’t possible with current technology.

Back to the Bahrain recommendations…

2 e-voting is doable and has many benefits some of which are enabling security, increasing accuracy, saving cost, enabling wider participation and catering for people with special needs like frequent travelers and disabled citizen.

I thought we’d killed the cost saving red herring years ago. When e-voting first began to be sold commercially the cost savings were all people spoke about, especially the vendors. But although securely printing paper ballots is costly, it pales in comparison to the costs of building and running a distributed highly scalable and secure e-voting system. Which is why no major vendors now trumpet cost savings in their marketing and why e-voting ‘pioneers’ like the UK government stopped talking about saving money through e-voting years ago.

It’s a fairly open secret that many of the suppliers to the UK pilots swallowed huge cost overruns just so that they could stay in the preferred supplier list for when e-voting went national and they could then recoup costs and some profits. Oops, not happened yet.

That e-voting can increase accuracy is utterly debatable, some would say yes because they believe computers make everything better. Others, especially usability experts would argue that computer interfaces are going to introduce whole new forms of errors. And of course software as well as hardware bugs can create fun unexpected inaccuracies too!

We also know that e-voting does not widen participation significantly. Repeated pilots have shown negligible boosts in turnout, as shown in my analysis of the 2003 UK pilots. We also know that many of the key reasons why people don’t vote are not related to convenience.

Don’t just take my arguments, many smart people agree, including former Labour minister Michael Meacher MP.

Finally while there is no doubt that helping disabled people to vote on their own is an important goal, I have to strongly question whether e-voting for everyone is the best way to meet that goal.

3 Kingdom of Bahrain enjoys many edges over other countries for successful implementation of e-voting such as; solid communication and IT infrastructure and a highly educated population.

Yeah, yeah. I’m sure that point has nothing to do with His Excellency Sheikh Ahmed bin Ataytallah Al-Khalifa State Minister to the Cabinet of Bahrain being patron for the forum.

4 The success of e-voting depends on the involvement of all stakeholders (Public, Government, Societies, professional and political parties)

Good point but impossible to ensure it’s not tokenism.

5 Governments have a vital and focal role to play in the e-voting process as; facilitators, enablers, promoters, legislators, organizers.

Well, maybe, but it does assume e-voting is a good thing. You know I don’t think e-voting is a smart move but either way should governments be championing this?

6 Increasing awareness, especially amongst public is one of the key success factors for e-voting to gain the trust of all concerned parties.

In my experience raising awareness in countries around the world has led to the public becoming increasingly suspicious of e-voting. Their first thoughts on e-voting tend to be positive but after 5 minutes of chatting their against it. Or is that just my sales technique?!

7 Kingdom of Bahrain’s smart Card project strongly supports e-voting due to its security and transparency features.

Yawn.

>8 The Forum highly commends the initiative of the organizers of the upcoming Bahrain Youth Parliament of implementing e-voting technology.

Get them while they’re young.

>9 The Forum highly commends Bahrain Government’s initiative of forming an advisory panel of experts form all relevant stakeholders including external relevant entities such as UN and independents to discuss and steer the e-voting initiative for Bahrain. This will also be a step in further establishing e-democracy.

I have no idea how this gets us to e-democracy but of course expert panels always seem like a good thing. They can be excellent but it all depends on those invited to participate and which voices are heard.

A quick look at the [speakers for the Bahrain forum][7] show us a bunch of people either:

  • Who know nothing whatsoever about e-voting (I think some speakers were randomly chosen);
  • Or are suppliers or the clients of those suppliers and thus have a vested interest in making e-voting look good.

There is nobody there with a deep technical or theoretical understanding of e-voting and not a single voice which might be considered slightly dissenting. This is not a surprise for Bahrain but still shameful that Avi Rubin, Barbara Simons, Bruce Schneier, David Dill, Rebecca Mercuri, Peter G Neumann, Doug Jones, Bryan Pfaffenberger or one of the other deeply intelligent people with concerns over e-voting wasn’t invited.

That such a limited group was invited to the forum does not bode well for the expert panel.

10 Implementation of e-voting should not eliminate traditional methods of voting. The voters should have a choice of selecting more than one convenient method.

Multi-channel voting is great in theory, certainly better than all e-voting at least, as it allows more robust channels of voting to take the strain if e-voting fails. However the challenges in terms of managing the electoral roll and voter authentication are significant indeed – it’s no easy task whatsoever to keep it all securely synchronised between channels.

11 It’s recommended to have an independent auditing body that consists of members from Government, private sector, political parties, professional to increase trust and credibility of the entire process.

Excellent – give them full access to the source code.

12 The forum shall state clearly that there is no 100% risk free system in either traditional or modern technology devised systems for voting. However, there are many proven ways and means of minimize such risks to an acceptable level.

Last but not least, eh? Well it’s a fair point but it would be nice to see them look at the risks from e-voting (potential for all votes to be manipulated electronically) vs. paper voting where there is a cost to each manipulation of physical ballots making wide scale fraud much harder.

Conclusion

The Khaleej Times report that Microsoft have signed a memorandum of understanding with regards to implementing Bahrain’s e-voting. Now Microsoft do have some good products, (only some ok?) but their reputation for security is deservedly poor and they’re not an e-voting vendor. So what on earth are they doing with Bahrain? I’d rather there was no e-voting but at least go with someone like VoteHere who actually has some experience of this field.

It looks like another country is being drawn by the siren cries of e-voting’s attractions. But sadly it’s all a mirage.

As always, a detailed non-technical explanation of the pros & cons of e-voting is available at http://www.free-project.org/learn/