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Blockchain voting system to be trialed in Greenland

Long associated with cryptocurrencies like bitcoin, blockchain technology could now underpin major elections in the autonomous Danish territory if a research project involving Concordium gets the thumbs up.

Seemingly undeterred by the raft of negative publicity the end-to-end encryption system has received this year – with perhaps the most high-profile case being the Ronin hack when the vulnerable crypto platform got robbed of more than $600m in funds – a consortium of researchers is seriously considering trusting the technology with the Nordic territory’s electoral sovereignty.

Greenland – a large country that is considered an autonomous state within the Kingdom of Denmark and has a population of around 56,000 – decided in 2020 that online elections would be the best solution in a region where voters often have to travel long distances to cast their ballot.

Now a consortium of researchers, including blockchain provider Concordium, Aarhus University, and Danish not-for-profit organization the Alexandra Institute, will spend a government grant of DKK3.6 million ($445,000) to see if blockchain – which supposedly offers a secure communication system between sender and receiver – can take digital voting to the next level.

Online balloting – the way of the future?

“There are of course many advantages in an online election – however, distrust and a lack of regulation-ready and secure solutions has prevented the vast majority of countries from moving forward,” said Kåre Kjelstrøm, CTO at Concordium.

“In Greenland, where enormous distances make it difficult for people to cast their vote, an online solution could potentially increase voter participation, and this is one of the reasons why a change in law in 2020 paved the way for Greenlanders to cast their vote online in the future.”

Kjelstrøm is confident that his company can offer a “science-based, decentralized’ solution to “the potential problems in building online elections on our chain.”

Carsten Schürmann, a professor at the IT University of Copenhagen who is overseeing the project, shared Kjelstrøm’s optimism – despite having previously criticised machine voting systems for their irregularities at the Black Hat cybersecurity conference in 2018. He believes that, in time, a blockchain-based solution can be devised to make online elections more, not less, secure.

“Blockchains provide some relatively new opportunities to create security and increase transparency, which can be really interesting when we talk about internet elections,” he said. “With this project, we will concretely investigate how blockchain technologies can be used to curb attacks on the election process, detect technical and human errors, and preserve the secrecy of the vote.”

He added: “Technologically speaking, we are moving into unknown territory, and depending on our results, you can easily imagine that the many countries that can see the benefits of an [online] election will be able to use our results as well. Greenland – with its limited population and great distances – is an optimal place to start from.”

When asked by Cybernews if the cybersecurity breaches suffered by cryptocurrency blockchain technologies had given his team pause for thought, Kjelstrøm stressed that the project was still in the speculative stages.

“Badly crafted software will never form the basis of online elections, whether using blockchain or something else," he said. "The purpose of the project is to do a feasibility study using scientists to turn every possible leaf and shed light on all opportunities and threats."

And Bojan Simic, CEO of cybersecurity firm HYPR, greeted the project with cautious optimism but said the "devil would be in the details."

"If it can be built in a privacy-preserving way, then I think it's a great idea," he said. "An immutable ledger would be very interesting to see being used in this scenario, but the most interesting part will be to see how they do the binding of user identity during the bootstrapping process."

Blockchain bulletin

Bas Spitters, associate professor at the computer science department of Aarhus University and a blockchain researcher, said the cryptocurrency technology shared similarities with that required for digital elections.

“Electronic election protocols use a kind of bulletin board, and blockchains can be used as a private and secure bulletin board,” he said. “They are already used in minor elections to ensure that voters can check that their votes have been registered correctly. In this project we will explore whether it can also be used in larger elections. In particular, we aim to verify that the protocols used to verify the votes are inaccessible to outsiders and that they are secure.”

Spitters added that his team would also investigate whether Danish ID cards can be integrated into a blockchain system, allowing voters to correctly identify themselves while ensuring personal data protection.

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