Security Experts Concerned by Silicon Valley’s Push for ‘Vote by Phone’ Elections

A growing line of voters, right, wait as others fill out their paper ballots in privacy voting booths, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, in Ridgeland, Miss. Voters have a number of races to consider, including judiciary and federal offices and some local issues. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

Silicon Valley investors have already gotten some election officials to begin using “vote by phone” technology, and hope that the concept will flourish, eventually becoming the new standardized voting procedure. Experts in coding and cryptography, however, are concerned over the tech innovation, warning that it will introduce more problems than it will solve.

Venture capitalists of the tech world are currently pushing for the implementation of a new vote-by-phone concept, but while the Silicon Valley investors are wooing election officials, the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine are warning specifically against trusting apps and cellphones to manage the voting process, according to a report by the Eagle.

“There are so many things that could go wrong — it is an odd time for this to be gaining momentum,” said Marian Schneider, the president of Verified Voting, which is a coalition of computer scientists and government transparency advocates who push for better-secured elections.

Bradley Tusk, a venture capitalist who managed former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s reelection campaign, is behind the push for voting to be done by phone, and believes that he will be successful with his new endeavor.

The venture capitalist has also aided in the success of apps Uber and Bird, and is reportedly using the same tactics he used with those in order to get the vote-by-phone process established. One of those tactics includes introducing the concept to the public in a subtle, fanciful way, which will, in turn, create a public demand.

The popular Showtime television series, Billions, recently scripted its characters to pitch the concept of voting by phone, already planting the idea into the minds of its viewers.

The show’s new subplot reportedly arrived after Tusk had dinner with one of the show’s creators. The report notes that security concerns are hardly ever brought up as a legitimate issue in the show.

“Once we prove this is a thing that works and people can do it, I think there will be real demand for it,” said Tusk.

Tusk has already convinced the state of West Virginia and the City of Denver to dabble with voting by phone and believes the technology will spread quickly from there. West Virginia officials insist that they are taking it slowly, only using the vote-by-phone process with overseas military personnel.

According to the report, Tusk believes that won’t be the case for long, and that “the gospel of mobile voting will spread so fast that most Americans will have the option of casting their ballots for president by phone as soon as 2028.”

“What we learned at Uber is once the genie is out of the bottle, it can’t be put it back in,” said Tusk.

Some of the nation’s most prominent election-security experts find the idea of spreading voting out over the Internet to be very concerning and say that Tusk and others promoting the concept are misleading election officials about how secure these systems are.

“Insecure Internet voting is possible now, but the risks currently associated with Internet voting are more significant than the benefits,” states a report by The National Academies, “Secure internet voting will likely not be feasible in the near future.”

The report also specifically notes that blockchain would introduce new issues pertaining to security, as cryptographers say the application could be breached and redesigned to rig votes, and that the system could be made faulty due to malware spread onto voters’ phones.

The firm, Voatz — which Tusk is working with — has reportedly claimed that their system is secure because it sends votes using the blockchain, a technology from cryptocurrencies.

“Anybody who is promoting blockchain voting either doesn’t understand blockchains, doesn’t understand voting, or is being dishonest,” said Microsoft cryptographer Josh Benaloh on a panel last month at Columbia University.

The venture capitalist is currently meeting with election officials all over the country, aiming to get 25 pilot programs — in addition to those launched in West Virginia and Denver — launched over the next few years, and believes that a few states will already be using the technology in the 2020 presidential primaries.

You can follow Alana Mastrangelo on Twitter at @ARmastrangelo and on Instagram.


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