Bitcoin Offers a Radically Different Model of Government
by Giulio Prisco / November 11, 2014
In a brilliant essay on Bitcoin and the promise it holds for a decentralized future (published on the Pirate Party founder Rick Falkvinge’s website), Nozomi Hayase explained the disruptive potential of Bitcoin. Now she further elaborates in a new essay on Falkvinge’s site, and explores how the Bitcoin ecosystem offers a different model of governance and how within it, our familiar notion of power can be redefined to mean something radically different.
“[W]hen I say Bitcoin, I am talking about the underlying technology of the blockchain (which is much more than currency), along with its decentralized network, and also blockchain-based cryptocurrencies in general. Bitcoin might not be the final currency that ends up bringing us into a decentralized future, but it has opened the door. If it fails, it will only be because there is an even better cryptocurrency to replace it.”
Hayase cleverly deconstructs the old notion – now little more than an urban legend – that governments and large corporations compete for power and control. On the contrary, what we have seen over the decades is a corporate takeover of governments, creating an interlocking power of states and corporations. For example, the cozy relationship between governments and monopolistic banks led to the forming of invisible governance structures, including a two-tiered justice system and the creation of expert opinion that facilitates camouflaged democratic processes to engineer consent. Domination through monopoly achieved with the complicity of the state, in Hayase’s view, is fundamentally incompatible with free choice.
“If Google became popular only because people genuinely like their service, then their popularity would be a result of a kind of democratic election process through the market. Yet if Google attains dominance in the market through colluding with the government and rigging competition, this presents a problem.”
Bitcoin, which evolved from the cypherpunk movement, follows and further promotes the trend toward decentralization, emerged through the internet technologies such as BitTorrent, and Internet movements such as open source software, in recent years. The essence of Bitcoin is scalable distributed trust (solving the problem of double-spending without third party reconciliation). The decentralized security of Bitcoin permits creating an open and inclusive global society.
“[W]hen more people start to govern themselves with collaborative smaller communities and engage in direct democracy at a larger level, there aren’t so many avenues for individuals or institutions to exploit others.”
For example, the Bitcoin security protocol could disrupt voting and even permit to implement direct democracy, instead of delegation, for a wide range of public policy issues.
“With transparent and secure voting processes enabled by the blockchain, the electoral arena can be transformed in a way that manifests the uncompromising power of citizens. In this we can still have representation where we wish, but it would be an option chosen by individuals freely.”
Bitcoin, the first technology that enables decentralized consensus, will permit people everywhere to associate freely with their fellows. Stateless decentralized crypto-currencies will create an environment where many different communities can co-exist and foster a society within which people create value together, based on each person’s affinity and voluntary association.
Why the block chain is what really matters
by James Haight / Nov 24, 2014
Whether you love, hate, or are indifferent about Bitcoin, there is no denying its stunning popularity. Bitcoin and other crypto currencies of its ilk, such asDogecoin and Litecoin, have seen rises in comparative exchange rates and legitimacy. Indeed, the IRS deciding to tax Bitcoin earnings as capital gains is a good indicator that Bitcoin has crossed some, however nebulous, threshold of legitimacy. Regardless of the long-term viability of these crypto-currencies, the new monetary platforms have developed a fundamental innovation that will have far greater implications than just electronic payments. This innovation is the block chain.
Understanding the Block Chain
Traditionally data and information are shared through a ‘hub and spoke’ model. A single institution, such as a bank, acts as the hub and disseminates information to us individually. But with Bitcoin there is no ‘bank’ or central institution. Rather the account value is stored across the distributed network of thousands, or more, computers. For Bitcoin, the solution to this problem is theblock chain, a public ledger and database where transaction records are stored concurrently across the network. (Check out this block chain FAQ for a crash course in plain English.) The block chain is important because it solves the longstanding problem of decentralized consensus. In other words, the block chain helps us answer questions such as how do we get multiple computers to agree on certain pieces of data or how do we handle inevitable faults in the system if a computer goes down or gets hacked? For these currencies to work, the network they exist on must propose a value, communicate with each other, and come to a consensus. This is a necessity if you are trying to have records stored publicly across a network rather than stored in one centralized hub.
The Value of Decentralized Consensus
The key is that the block chain provides us with a mechanism to apply decentralized consensus to a variety of applications. Applying this decentralized concept to other technologies presents the prospect for profound future impact. Any application that requires a system of record, whether banking, property ownership records, or election voting, could potentially benefit from a system of decentralized consensus by breaking away from the classic ‘keys to the kingdom’ problem and eliminating any single point of failure. For failure to occur in a decentralized network, an entity must compromise a large portion of a distributed, potentially global, network rather than a single institution. Decentralized consensus has other benefits as well, as it potentially creates another barrier for misrepresenting the truth. When information is publicly known, an inaccuracy must be vetted by the system. Consider the real world example of resumes before and after the advent of LinkedIn. A prospective employee may be tempted to lie on their resume to get the job they want. For the most part, employers are forced to take resumes at face value or conduct their own due diligence. In fact, a survey from CareerBuilder.com found that 58% of hiring managers have caught a lie on a resume. However, that same prospective employee is less likely to lie on their more public LinkedIn resume. A study from the Cornell Social Media Lab found that people are less likely to lie on resumes posted in public places because of the presence of past employers, coworkers, and friends who can potentially call their bluff. This example can serve as microcosm (albeit one without complex algorithms) for the potential benefits of systems invoking a public ledger.
A number of organizations are pushing forward the idea of applying the innovation of the block chain to more mainstream applications. I had the opportunity to interview Stephan Tual of Ethereum, an organization broadly seen as leading the charge. Ethereum represents what could well be the next iteration of block chain inspired technology. Ethereum is building a platform that enables developers to create their own decentralized applications. In a sense, Ethereum provides an ‘operating system’layer that allows individuals to program any feature that they may want on top of it. The existence of such platforms presents an important launching point for future use cases. Proponents of Ethereum and decentralized applications envision a broad spectrum of areas that this can be implemented. There is an opportunity to introduce an automated element to nearly any mechanism that operates based on a set of predefined rules. Smart contracts based on Ethereum or similar platforms could be extended to areas such as banking, financial derivatives, gambling, crowd funding, or even employment contracts. Money, or any other digital asset, can be automatically redistributed between the parties involved (say on either side of a sports bet) based on the outcomes of a specified set of rules or conditional logic. For example, if team A wins, then money is redistributed from party X to party Y. In such scenarios, this technology mitigates both the middleman and the opportunity for fraud.
But of course, as with everything that has stemmed from Bitcoin, this new decentralized distribution of data is new, relatively unexplored, and not well understood by the community at-large. The question is not whether decentralized networks become more pervasive in our future, but to what extent they will redefine existing systems. By supporting new forms of trusted data sharing and transactional interactions, the long-term effect of Bitcoin may not be its actual impact as a global currency, but as the precursor to a new fundamental trusted application environment that changes the way that we work and play together.
Bitcoin Could Change Voting the Way It’s Changed Money
by Meghan Neal / June 6, 2014
There’s a sense bubbling up in the cryptocorners of the internet that the trick to bitcoin might be that it doesn’t have to be a currency at all. Maybe cryptocurrency’s fundamental value is as a security protocol—a safe, anonymous, hack-proof network that decentralizes trust and democratizes power. And maybe a hitherto overlooked use of all that is politics, by using the bitcoin precedent to overhaul democratic voting. Political groups and tech startups are beginning to experiment with digital voting systems based on the bitcoin and blockchain protocol. What does voting have to do with bitcoin? For all its appeal, online voting in its current form— which is already being used or researched in several US states and countries overseas—is very vulnerable to fraud, cyberattack, and government corruption. The theory is that the bitcoin security protocol matched with anonymizing software and a totally open source voting infrastructure would solve for a lot of these problems. “Just replace a coin in your head with a vote, and run it the exact same dynamic,” said Maximiliaan van Kuyk, cofounder of the V initiative, based in New York. The V initiative and V mobile voting app is one of the leading bitcoin-based e-voting efforts here in the US, working with the National Association of Voter Officials toward the ambitious goal of moving America’s political election process into the digital age, something NAVO’s been pushing for for a decade.
Imagine that instead of a bitcoin, there’s a set of “coins” with a unique marker inside the current bitcoin blockchain that indicates a specific vote. This can be achieved today with the “colored coins” technology. Let’s call these “Votecoins.” Each registered voter gets a Votecoin through the election organizer—say, the US government. The government also sets up what’s effectively “yes” and “no,” or maybe it’s “candidate A” and “candidate B” wallets. When it comes time to vote, you send your Votecoin to the wallet of your choice, just like a bitcoin transaction. Also like a bitcoin transaction, the entire process is recorded in the blockchain public ledger, repurposed to verify votes and avoid voter fraud. So instead of placing your trust in a central authority like, say, the ballot counters tallying up hanging chads in Florida, the network is anonymous but transparent, and audited by the crowd.
V isn’t the only system applying the blockchain protocol for secure online voting; it’s joined by BitCongress, Liquid Feedback, Agora Voting, and others. Crypto voting is has been used in elections in Norway, Denmark, Europe’s Pirate Party, and the Spanish Congress. In the US, bitcoin-based e-voting protocols are still just a proof of concept; there’s a legal hurdle to clear before transitioning the current election system to the web. “I can’t say for sure because there are a lot of variables, but it would not surprise me if within a couple years we saw them come into existence in the United States,” said secretary of NAVO Brent Turner. NAVO started out specific to California, which recently passed legislation that would pave the way for open source digital election systems. Now the group is taking the effort national. “The idea is to provide options for the national state election directors and the election officials by giving them good information and basically a roadmap on how to create their own open source voting systems,” said Turner. “There is a crisis right now that is being recognized nationally.”
But before we revamp the framework for American democracy, there are some questions to answer. What if the infrastructure’s hacked? What about voter coercion, “people being metaphorically held at gunpoint to vote a certain way,” said van Kuyk. What about privacy? E-voting and cryptography are hot topics, and plenty of startups and organizations are on the case. For instance, onename.io, which uses the blockchain to publicly verify identity, and TurboVote, a nonprofit working to make online voter registration and voting more user-friendly. On the privacy point, the V platform would need to be 100 percent anonymous, notably unlike bitcoin. As a last line of defense, the protocol would run on an IP-masking software like Tor to protect users against mass data scraping that can reveal identities by putting together enough clues, as we learned from the NSA leaks.
There can also be a psychological resistance to transferring a high-stakes analog system into cyberspace (my mom refused to do any banking online until last year), so V is testing its closed voting app in smaller democratic decision-making processes before diving into politics. It’s planning, with NAVO, test trials in civic and social settings like student governments, unions, councils, and businesses. But others are diving headfirst into e-voting. Estonia, England, and Finland are considering digital voting for national elections, with centralized systems, and in Alaska you can vote for the president online without anonymity. “This kind of stuff is moving forward in a lot of places and nobody’s really talking about it,” said van Kuyk. Beyond security, the technoutopian vision of bitcoin-based voting is to move closer to a direct or “liquid” democracy rather than a strictly representative one—to allow for more engagement in the political process.
On the extreme end of this ideology are proposals to ditch representative democracy altogether, and use the internet to crowdsource it instead. I wrote about a startup that wants to replace Congress with software by electing candidates into office that then tally popular vote via algorithm and vote accordingly. Van Kuyk envisions a more moderate change. The V protocol would enable elected politicians to key into their constituencies more easily and get feedback on issues, “allowing more interaction between the citizens and the people that represent them,” he said. The V initiative even touts the technology as a way to help relieve the gridlock and systematic problems crippling Washington and give voters back a voice. “The political corruption and stalemates and a lot of the power mongering that goes on,” said van Kuyk, “that kind of system can’t continue. It inevitably has to be disrupted … We could have a system in place so that we can always chime in and make our opinions known—so it can work the way it’s supposed to work.” At its core, bitcoin’s fundamental ethos was always to democratize power. Maybe that’ll end up playing out through politics instead of money.
How the German Pirate Party’s “Liquid Democracy” Works
by David Meyer / May 7 2012
In the midst of the political upheaval affecting Europe, a relatively new movement is making stunning progress, particularly in Germany. On Sunday, the Pirate Party entered its third German state parliament in eight months, demonstrating momentum that surprises even its core members. The party is now on track to pick up a double-digit percentage of the vote in next year’s federal elections. And it’s dealing with this explosive growth through the medium it knows best: technology. Founded in Sweden in 2006 by Rick Falkvinge and known at first for its stance on reforming copyright to suit the digital age, the Pirate Party began to gain ground in Germany in 2009. That year, the country’s family minister proposed blocking extensive lists of websites as a way of combating child pornography. The country’s large hacker community cried censorship, and the then-tiny German Pirate Party again reaped the benefits. “This protest against the idea of website blocking by political institutions helped to build the Pirate Party in the structure it has now,” says political science professor Christophe Bieber, of the University of Duisburg-Essen. “They had 800-900 members at the start of 2009, and 10,000 afterwards.”
In 2011, Pirates put up 15 candidates for the Berlin state elections. All of them won seats, putting the Pirates into a regional parliament for the first time. Then the Pirates entered the Saarland state parliament, before repeating the trick in Schleswig-Holstein last weekend. Membership is shooting up again, and is now nearing 30,000. “That the Pirate Party is able to attract people to join a political party organization is quite a unique phenomenon, because the image of party politics is not very good,” Bieber says. But growth has led to growing pains. According to Simon Weiss, one of the Pirates who became a politician in the Berlin parliament, the party structures that existed in its early days don’t work in the context of a much larger membership. “They were designed to fit fifty people, not thousands,” he says.
The same core ideology that seems to have attracted all of those new members may also help the party deal with this growth. While the Pirate Party is still vocal on copyright issues, transparency has become so central to its platform that any party in German Parliament wanting Pirates as a coalition partner would have to live-stream negotiations online. No one is likely to take the Pirates up on the offer, and that suits them fine; they are seeking additional experience in parliament before making a play to become part of government. And the Pirates’ uniquely technological bent has come in handy. Members have tools at their disposal to discuss issues online in large-scale dialogue, then bring the conversation offline to reach official consensus at party conventions. “What we’ve observed during the last months is that almost any decisions the Pirates took at their conventions were heavily discussed beforehand by a large number of people, many of whom did not attend the conventions,” Bieber says. “[Absent members] will support the decisions being made there because they had the chance to input into the discussions beforehand. It’s one reason for the stability the Pirate Party is showing.”
The most widely-used online Pirate platform is PiratePad, a collaborative text editor. Adapted by party members from the commercial EtherPad software, which Google acquired and open-sourced in late 2009, Pirates use it alongside chatrooms, wikis and mailing lists to collaboratively work on policies. But a few of the local Pirate chapters, notably the one in Berlin, are also experimenting with a platform called Liquid Feedback. Also open-source (and therefore available for implementation by anyone), Liquid Feedback is built around a concept called ‘liquid democracy.’ It’s effectively a technology for hacking traditional politics. If PiratePad is about collaboration and discussion, Liquid Feedback is about competition and decision-making. Any of the 6,000 members that use it can propose a policy. If the proposal picks up a 10 percent quorum within a set period, such as a week, it becomes the focus of an almost ‘gamified’ revision period. Any member can also set up an alternative proposal, and over the ensuing few weeks these rival versions battle it out, with members voting their favorites up or down. “In the ideal case you have five or six people working on alternative initiatives, and everyone tries to be the better one so they can win the poll in the end,” Berlin Pirate Party spokesman Ingo Bormuth explains. “We hope it’s healthy competition, but we want people to compete against each other so they stay [involved] in the topic.”
Each member has one vote, but most are not interested in marking up endless reams of policy papers. So the system allows every vote to be entrusted to another member – for everything, or for certain topics or specific proposals, or not at all. What’s more, the person who has been delegated the votes of others can then re-delegate all those votes, plus their own, to someone else. It’s a trust-based approach and the nearest thing Liquid Feedback has to a reputation system. Members don’t get points-based kudos for their involvement and expertise; they collect real votes. In theory, votes being passed up the chain like this could lead to a crony elite or even a dictator, but there is a failsafe mechanism. Every delegated vote can be reclaimed at any time, so no high-flying Pirate can operate without a continuous mandate. “We want effective people to be powerful and do their work, but we want [the grassroots] to be able to control them,” Bormuth says.
This is liquid democracy: a sliding scale between direct democracy and representative democracy, where each member can decide where they sit in the spectrum at any given time. “Just recently we had something regarding the EU Data Protection Directive,” Weiss recounts. “The [winning] Liquid Feedback initiative said the Pirate faction in [the Berlin] parliament should bring those proposals forward. We discussed it in the faction and decided to bring it into parliament. It’s not quite correct to say it was successful there, but an amended version was successful.” However, Weiss is wary of overstating the importance of Liquid Feedback relative to more frequently-used tools, and he is certainly sceptical of the idea that the platform is in itself a big draw for voters. “The average person knows we’re a grassroots movement and they know we do things over the Internet, but they may not know about liquid democracy,” he says. The politician also points out that, while Liquid Feedback does work for handling fundamental topics, it has limitations.
“For questions such as ‘do we want to institute a basic income’, there’s more to it than decision on Liquid Feedback,” Weiss says. “There’s a decision at conference, and by an elected group of people. You can’t have a system that maps the whole discourse that has to happen for this kind of democracy. But you can have quantified feedback that shows you where the majority lies on a given point.” Bieber reckons Liquid Feedback’s interface may be seen as “nerdy or geeky” by many new recruits, especially when compared with the familiar mechanisms of wikis and collaborative text editors. It has an interface only a developer could love, although the Pirates have recently published APIs so people can build more attractive front-ends for smartphones and the web. While other tools are open to all, Liquid Feedback can only be accessed by registered members. “With PiratePads, you don’t need to be a member of the Pirate Party to join the discussion and edit the text,” Bieber says. “To some this is the starting point for a critique of Liquid Feedback … that erecting areas of restricted access for members is against the grassroots attitude.”
As the party grows, some are asking Liquid Feedback to grow with it. Right now, it is not used to finalize position papers, just inform decisions at party conventions. Others want the party to take that extra step. Bieber, the political scientist, suggests that the scale of collaboration would create a Wikipedia-like environment where pranksters and outside political saboteurs would be quickly caught out in any attempt to game the system. But the Pirate Party’s growth may force its members to rethink its approach to identity. Liquid Feedback now allows the use of pseudonyms. At the national level, it’s designed to verify that each user is really a Pirate Party member but keep no record of exactly which user account corresponds to which person. For now. “There is a lot of talk in the party about changing that and forcing everybody to put their real name at least somewhere, maybe not publicly, but to make it clear who is who,” Bormuth says. “In Berlin there are people talking about dropping pseudonymity altogether. The point is not so much about security, but now that we have politicians in parliament, they say they want to use the system a lot more. And they say, ‘If I follow the system, I want to know that these are real people I’m talking to.'” Bieber is cautious about making predictions, as data on the system’s performance remains scarce, but he is intrigued by the idea of connecting liquid democracy with the parliamentary process. “It can quickly give you an idea of what the base is thinking during a parliamentary discussion and maybe before a talk in parliament,” he says. “Pirate politicians can then say, ‘This is just in part my opinion; it’s partly also the opinion of the base I’m related to.’ This is some evidence of the sliding scale between direct and representative democracy.”
Liquid Feedback has always been intended as a prototype for a future version of democracy, Weiss points out: “If you want to propose that as a way of organising things, you need to see if it actually works, and we’re experimenting on ourselves. It’s the same thing with transparency – if people say it doesn’t work, we can say we are trying it, and so far it has worked.” The Pirates may have been the first party to try implementing liquid democracy, but others are cautiously following suit. The center-left SPD is experimenting with a system based on Adhocracy (a more user-friendly alternative to Liquid Feedback) for its party thinktank. Even the federal parliament is using Adhocracy for a commission on digital policy. Whether or not the Pirates maintain the pace of their push, they have already proved to be, in Bieber’s words, “a generator of innovation for the political process.”
How Block Chain Technology Could Usher in Digital Democracy
by Danny Bradbury / June 16, 2014
In the digital age, it seems strange that people all around the world still use paper to vote. Of course, given bitcoin’s promise to remove paper from the financial system, many in the industry are beginning to ask if the same block chain technology can be applied to help modernize the democratic process. There’s good reason, as the traditional paper voting system has its flaws. In 2012, when the last US election occurred, one in every eight voter registrations was invalid or inaccurate, and 2.7 million voters were registered in multiple states. That’s a terrible statistic in a system used to decide the future of any nation, let alone one as powerful as the US. Some might argue that the paper voting system could use a little digital efficiency. Internet voting might not only be more accurate, but it could also be more frequent.
Organising a paper-based vote on monthly issues would be impractical, but voting from your tablet or mobile phone on, say, whether to allow your local MP or senator to continue in their role might encourage a little more accountability in the seat of power. Forget it, says Barbara Simons. “At this point we cannot do Internet voting securely,” warns the former IBM computer scientist who has conducted extensive research into Internet voting. Readers will point out that Internet voting is already happening, but she’s saying that we cannot guarantee its integrity. Simons, a former president of the Association for Computing Machinery, participated in a National Workshop on Internet Voting commissioned by former US President Bill Clinton, and authored a book, ‘Broken Ballots‘. She is a long-standing critic of online voting, and her research caused the US Department of Defense to nix an Internet voting system it was considering. “A lot of people think ‘I can bank online, so why can’t I vote online?’,” says Simons. “But, millions disappear from online bank accounts each year.”
There are several challenges facing Internet voting systems. One of the biggest is auditability. How can you prove that a vote was cast the proper way? Sending your vote from a kiosk, mobile phone or home computer to a server – or even selecting options using an automated phone-based voting system – doesn’t guarantee that it gets registered properly at the other end, or even registered at all. The voter doesn’t have access to that server, or to the network along which their vote travels. And when it comes to a recount, there is no paper trail. “The beauty of paper ballots is that you can do recounts,” says Simons.
Some are mulling block chain-based systems to help solve the tangled problem of Internet voting. Block chains are already used to encode information from – and about – a particular source, made at a particular point of time. Blocks in a block chain are ‘sealed’ with a cryptographic hash, which can be used to verify the contents of that block at a later date. If anyone tries to alter the historical record of transactions in a network, or to introduce new ones, then they’d have to go back and alter that block in the block chain. That would create a new hash that wouldn’t match the existing hash on record for that block. The fraudster could simply replace that hash with a new one, but it takes a lot of computing power to calculate a hash on the bitcoin network. And the hash for a bitcoin block is used to help compute the hash of the next block in the block chain. That means that the further back in time you try to alter a transaction, the more hashes you’d have to recalculate, and the more computing power it would take.
Voting on the block chain
That is how bitcoin is able to guarantee its validity as a public ledger for all transactions in its history. But, if you can do that for financial transactions, the argument goes, then why can’t you do it for votes? After all, votes are another kind of transaction that has to be recorded. The Liberal Alliance party in Denmark is said to be in favour of a block chain-based vote. BitCongress is using the Ethereum platform to build a scrypt-based altcoin called votecoin, that will use its network to hash and verify votes. It will use an application, Axiomity, both to organise and decide the parameters for votes, and to handle the voting process, explains founder Morgan Rockwell, who is also behind Bitcoin Kinetics. Rockwell told CoinDesk: “The numbers that detail the cryptocurrency component, the voting methods, the GUI for Axiomity all are being set up to allow custom implementation of votecoin for multiple case uses.” He added that votes will be hashed into a block chain.
A block chain-based system might provide a useful way to prove that a particular vote was cast by someone with a specific private key, and thereby guarantee the integrity of the votes once they were cast. But, what about guaranteeing the integrity of the voting process itself? The big problem with Internet-based voting software, experts say, is that it’s difficult to prove that the voting machines themselves have not been compromised. “If we’re doing remote internet voting on the voters own machines, then we need some assurance that those machines aren’t owned,” says Christopher Camp, founder of Restart Democracy, a nonprofit organization focused on driving innovations in technology to help promote democracy. Camp explained: “There is no simple solution. The rate of tech geeks who are having bitcoin lifted off them is a sign that this is a deep problem. And bitcoin owners are people who likely have decent security hygiene and high-entropy passwords.” How might a client-side compromise work? Let’s say that Bob is about to vote on the next president. Bob is using a PC-based system, with open-source code that anyone can inspect and the machine is under his control. Bob uses biometric authentication to prove to the voting program that he is who he says he is. Bob then enters his private key – securely stored on a piece of paper in a locked safe – to access his votecoin and cast his vote. Using the public key, he votes for Jane to be president. So far, so good. But, a rookit installed by Jane’s opponent Mike via a drive-by download has altered the software’s functionality. The software uses Bob’s carefully-validated ID to alter the vote. That vote, fully authenticated, is then hashed into the block chain for posterity – as a vote for Mike.
This is not far fetched. Similar things happen in banking all the time, says Simons: “Malware is put on the victims’ machines, and malware steals money from the victim’s bank accounts without their knowledge. There’s a famous virus called Zeus that has stolen millions of dollars from online bank accounts.” Zeus does that by waiting for the victim to authenticate themselves to the bank, and then carrying out its own actions using that authentication. But, surely the same software used to vote could scan the block chain and double-check that Mike’s vote was cast correctly? Perhaps. But then, if the software is running on a compromised machine and has been altered to tamper with a vote, then it isn’t to be trusted. Banking trojans also rewrite bank statements to fool users, after all. Rockwell doesn’t have an easy answer for this. “The reality is that problem cannot be easily solved by any electronic method,” he says. “BitCongress is not being created to replace all forms of voting; it is merely for a simple block chain-based option to give a public ledger of votes to the public eye.”
Some have tried to solve these problems using end-to-end auditable voting systems, which at least try to facilitate electronic voting, if not Internet voting. Typically, votes are made via a kiosk, which produces some kind of paper record of the ballot, but they allow votes to be processed electronically rather than hand-counted, for efficiency and expediency. An E2E verificable system will typically cryptographically encode the physical ballots somehow, so that a later audit can be conducted if necessary to match the paper ballot with the registered vote. Scantegrity, a system used to cryptographically verify optical voting records, tries to solve the problem of verifying physical ballot validity by including a cryptographic code printed on the voting ballot. Auditors can use the cryptographic code later on to check that the vote registered on the system corresponded with the vote on the ballot. But, Scantegrity relies heavily on data registered before an election (such as unique codes that can be used by voters, for example). What if an election official added more codes to the list of allowable voting codes, and then ‘stuffed the ballot’ to make new, fake votes? Jeremy Clark of Carleton University and Aleks Essex at the University of Waterloo hope to use block chains to solve that problem. They published a paper describing commitcoin. This is an implementation of a system that uses cryptographic proof of work systems to prove that they committed a message before a certain date. The pair have suggested that this system could be used not to manage an entire voting system, but rather to prove the integrity of election data (such as a list of valid voting codes) before an event. That way, if someone tried to add more voting codes, it could be compared with the original, verifiable list.
Clark has also worked on a remote voting system known as Remotegrity. This allows voters to use the Internet, though it relies on the postal system as a side channel. Voters can’t rely entirely on the voting system, but must instead receive lists of candidates via the mail. The candidates are represented by numbers, randomised across different mailings and they use these numbers when voting on the Internet. That prevents a compromised computer from changing their vote. Clark explained: “I think the long term solution is to marry a modified version of Remotegrity with the block chain, so that you end up with a Distributed Autonomous version of Remotegrity.” The block chain may be a useful means of guaranteeing vote integrity at the back end, but as these experts point out, guaranteeing vote integrity from end to end is a sticky problem – especially if you’re trying to make push-button democracy a reality. On the other hand, in an electoral system where a quarter of eligible US voters aren’t even registered, rootkits are one problem in a constellation of democracy-threatening issues.