People can shop, date and bank online. How feasible would it be to allow internet voting at the general election? Imagine democracy had just been invented. Would the UK government decide to set up 50,000 polling stations on Thursday 7 May? Or would the vote be taking place online instead? Until the 1870s those people allowed to vote did so openly with no privacy. The 1872 Ballot Act changed this with the invention of the “modern” polling station – the church hall with its wooden booths, a pencil on string and piles of ballot papers handed out by earnest election workers. Since then the way we vote has hardly changed. Today people shop, find a partner and bank online. Surely voting online is possible? The government says not. In January, Sam Gyimah, the constitution minister, told the House of Commons: “I feel [that] moving to electronic voting would be a huge task for any government. We can’t be under any illusion that this would be easy to achieve.” Remote voting was “incredibly rare” around the world and would require a “very robust and secure” system, Gyimah said.
… There’s another more sinister possibility – that the whole online electoral apparatus could be hacked and the result manipulated or discredited. All Estonians get a government ID and scannable chip and PIN that gives them an online identity. There are special SIM cards for authenticating your identity from a mobile phone. Once cast, the votes are encrypted. But even with these safeguards, computer scientists at the University of Michigan last year concluded that the system was vulnerable to hacking and should not be used for European elections.
Mark Ryan, professor of cyber security at the University of Birmingham, says online voting is very different from online banking, for instance. With banking you can verify a transaction, whereas voting is not checkable in the same way – it is a private matter, he says. Also, if there is a mistake in online banking, money can be returned later. If hacking was found to have occurred a week after an election “it’s a bit of a disaster” – would the result have to be reversed? And the stakes are far higher.
“Let’s say that you’re voting for president of the US. You could have Russians or Chinese with an interest in the outcome [trying to manipulate it].” Foreign powers hacking each other’s networks is a growing phenomenon. “The risk we can’t afford to take is large scale interference by a foreign state. GCHQ and MI5 believe the UK is under cyber attack from foreign countries.”