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LETTER: Internet voting in Ontario a 'wild west'

'One individual half-way around the world can hack into an internet voting system, undetected, and change the results,' a reader writes
2022-05-17 typing pexels-donatello-trisolino-1375261
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GuelphToday received the following Letter to the Editor from Susan Watson in response to Online voting set for likely return in 2026 city election

At the committee of the whole meeting May 7th, city staff were unequivocal in their warnings to council about the risks of internet voting. Clerk Stephen O’Brien told council, “….the level of risk to the successful delivery and integrity of the overall election is such that staff cannot recommend internet voting at this time.”

Staff set out a detailed rationale for how they assigned a “High” risk assessment to internet voting.

The key weakness of their report was the statement: “…there are no proven instances of an internet voting system being hacked or tampered with….” While staff were clearly not aware of such incidents, serious hacks and tampering with online elections are well documented in the public domain.

Last year, here in Guelph, the online CSA election at the university was hacked.

Students who logged on to try and vote were told by the system they had already voted, even though they had not yet cast a ballot. An investigation revealed that security was indeed compromised. The online vote was cancelled and the entire election had to be re-staged in-person with paper ballots.

One of the most famous internet voting hacks was staged by a computer science team from the University of Michigan led by J. Alex Halderman. In 2010, Washington D.C. ran a pilot of their planned internet election and invited members of the public to try and hack in. Within 48 hours, Halderman’s team had total control over the voting servers and were able to change all the votes. The only way election officials knew this had happened was that Halderman and his team rigged the system to play the University of Michigan fight song every time someone voted. Needless to say, the actual online election was cancelled.

This is the key problem with internet voting: one individual half-way around the world can hack into an internet voting system, undetected, and change the results. There are no paper ballots to verify what the real count should have been.

Irregularities in the 2017 United Conservative Party online leadership vote in Alberta triggered a criminal investigation. Although police found evidence of nearly 200 suspicious votes, they couldn’t collect enough evidence against any individuals to lay charges.

One of the concerns staff set before council was “bandwidth throttling” which impacted online aspects of elections in 2018 and 2022. Mayor Guthrie satisfied himself with the thought that this could be avoided by only having internet voting at advance polls. Perhaps he has never heard of DoS attacks (Distributed Denial of Service)?

And then there are the risks of malicious actors phishing for your vote when you’re at your home computer. Unlike the 2011 Robocall crime, you might never learn you were at the wrong polling station. During the 2014 municipal election, the City of Sudbury sent out an advisory warning of fake voting sites. Luckily, no votes had been diverted or PINs harvested, as the person responsible for the copycat site was simply trying to make a point about election vulnerability.

Internet voting in Ontario is literally a Wild West. There are no laws, regulations or licensing governing how it is administered, or by whom. We have standards, laws and codes for water, sewage, policing and buildings, but not for internet voting.

A 2023 study by a University of Western Ontario Masters student, James Brunet, benchmarked internet voting in Ontario’s 2022 municipal elections against the internationally recognized e-voting standard created by the Council of Europe. In his study, Online Voting in Ontario Municipalities: A Standards-Based Review, Brunet concluded that Ontario had a compliance rate of 14 per cent with the Council of Europe’s standards and implementation guidelines.

Think that no one would be interested in l’il ol’ Guelph’s politics? During our 2022 elections, there was an organized campaign by anti-trans candidates to make inroads in School Board Trustee races across the province.

Our democracy at all levels is founded on free and fair elections. City council is required by legislation “to ensure the accountability and transparency of the operations of the municipality”.

Internet voting wipes out accountability and transparency. Unlike a bank account, there’s no pre-existing balance which lets you know what the final count was meant to be.

If the integrity of your local democracy matters to you, you might like to have a chat with your ward councillors before May 28th.

Susan Watson