Can an untrusting environment create a more secure environment?

An student issue analysis for MIS41240 at University College Dublin.

Written by Stephanie Zirker, Summer 2019. Dublin.

In the late 1990s, Estonia began developing an ‘e-government’ infrastructure. At the same time, the country was enjoying newfound freedom from the Soviet Union and was positioned to develop their government services in an independent manner. The main functions of the e-government infrastructure are: completely digitized health data (‘e-Health’), digital IDs for all citizens (‘e-Residency’), electronic public services (‘e-Governance’) and online voting (‘i-Voting’). This article focuses on the ‘i-Voting’ service. The program provides Estonians the option to vote in elections from any computer connected to the Internet using their e-Residency ID. Today, forty-four percent of citizens opt for the digital option.   

The current crisis presents the opportunity to explore new ways of regaining faith with alternative approaches

Opinions on the ‘i-Voting’ function in Estonia differ; some, including Perrigo, Leetaru and Past paint Estonia as the model example of effective electronic voting whereas others, like Geller and Pogue, view the system as laden with security vulnerabilities. The issue of trust seems to underpin most arguments opposing national e-voting systems. If countries oppose online voting due to a lack of trust in digital methods, the logical assumption is that the existing system is more trustworthy than the electronic one being proposed. Yet, a deep irony exists here. Elections require a high level of trust and perceived credibility in order to support a strong democracy. Yet, in certain countries, like the United States, forty-percent of Americans do not believe the current voting process is fair. In the context of elections, ‘fair’ can translate to trust in the process, as believing the process is unfair means lacking trust that ballots will be counted correctly. Counterintuitively, I argue that this untrusting environment can produce a more secure environment.

With the majority of Americans already lacking trust in their election system, why is the debate about exploring online voting so heated? It seems a new solution would be favourable and supported. Various factors are referenced as contributing to Estonia’s robust e-government system: the country’s small size, the context of inception during newfound freedom from the Soviet Union and the availability of Internet, among others. The list reflects that no single and simple explanation exists as to why the system has experienced a strong hold in Estonia; and perhaps why no other country has successfully followed suit to the same scale. Some contend, including Estonia itself, that the successful e-voting system is a by-product of citizens’ pre-existing trust in their government. If the trust argument holds merit, it seems to follow that e-voting would be a complete failure in the United States where trust in elections is a dim reality. But, perhaps the current distrusting landscape in the United States could, alternatively, be the required ingredient to shift towards a more secure solution.

The matter of being secure is a different question than simply existing; the fact that Estonia has a nation-wide online voting system in place is perhaps more of a context discussion than a social one and does not necessarily constitute security. Here, the focus is on security, as the most commonly cited concerns regarding online voting revolve around security and subsequently, trust. One could argue that with recent manipulation schemes like the Cambridge Analytica scandal and Russian interference, United States elections are already far from secure in many ways.

Famously, Winston Churchill advised, ‘never waste a good crisis’. Election fraud happens everywhere and frequently but it seems the United States has reached something of a crisis. The current crisis presents the opportunity to explore new ways of regaining faith with alternative approaches, namely online voting.

The trust-building process can be supported in two ways. First, instilling fear by enacting a crisis would rhetorically create an environment that must seek solutions. By projecting the current state of affairs and emphasizing existing distrust positions, policymakers could mobilize citizens towards supporting an online approach. Second, trials present an opportunity to demonstrate a commitment towards improvement. Many trials of electronic voting based on blockchain technology have been conducted – in Switzerland, South Korea and West Virginia, among others – and most were deemed successful based on the sought measures. Blockchain is increasingly entertained as the technical solution with potential to ensure secure elections. Whether this holds true is not yet confirmed. However, even the prospect means a shift towards increased security. Trials of blockchain voting are likely to produce a more secure society because regardless of the outcome, they require time and attention devoted to security, which enhances the system’s security. A successful trial marks a potential solution and an unsuccessful trial stands as an option that does not enhance security and should not be implemented.

Distrust begets fear, which creates the circumstances to begin exploring opportunities for change, namely online voting systems. Together, an air of fear and a dedication to trials and tests can create the conditions to shift to a different voting structure and jointly, a more trusting society.