A voting technique

Source: By Govind Bhattacharjee: The Statesman

The elections for the 17th Lok Sabha will be conducted in seven phases and over 39 days, compared to 36 days for the 16th Lok Sabha. The votes will be counted four days later, making the largest exercise in the world’s largest democracy also the longest. In an age of technology and EVMs, our elections are getting stretched almost without end. But the Election Commission has a point ~ the security and fairness of the process, sine qua non of elections everywhere, cannot be compromised.

In November 2018, West Virginia became the first state in USA, and in the world, to allow internet voting using a technology called blockchain in mid-term elections, in which 144 overseas military personnel from 24 counties were able to cast their ballots on a mobile, blockchain based platform called Voatz. The technology was earlier successfully piloted in the primary elections in April, in respect of deployed military members and other citizens eligible to vote as absentees under the law. Voter turnout in West Virginia is traditionally among the lowest in the USA, especially among military personnel, and the exercise was intended to boost turnout.

There is no dearth of skeptics anywhere, and like opponents of EVMs in India, this also provoked wide criticism on the same grounds of compromising democracy, but despite such protests, blockchain-based voting systems would probably become the norm in the near future. Voting with blockchain can, in fact, completely eliminate election frauds and tampering. The blockchain protocol automatically maintains transparency in the process, reducing the number of personnel needed to oversee an election and hence the cost. Above all, the system can provide instant results. Blockchain, which is the backbone of cryptocurrencies like bitcoin and ethereum, is definitely the technology for the future.

Blockchain is only a chain of blocks. A “block” contains digital information which is stored in the “chain” which is a public database. Blockchain is actually a “distributed, decentralized, public ledger” which stores information about transactions and their participators, besides information that uniquely identifies a block. Any information stored in the blockchain is immutable and completely transparent. The system rests on the pillar of decentralisation.

In a centralized entity, all data are stored in one location, embodied by the traditional client-server architecture, in which a query is sent to the server which then responds with the requested information. But since all data are stored at the server, it also becomes the sure target of hackers. In contrast, in a decentralised system, data are not stored in any centralised location but distributed throughout the network, making each user the owner of the information. It is then not necessary to interact with any particular computer in the network for accessing information.

Being decentralised, the blockchain architecture has no centralized points of vulnerability that hackers can exploit; besides, instead of the usual “username/password” security of centralised systems, blockchain uses the much more robust security of encryption. This was the concept underlying the cryptocurrencies like bitcoin which have no physical form and exist only in the decentralised network.

Whenever a new transaction occurs, it creates a new block with new data which is added to the chain, provided the transaction is verified not by any human being, but by the network of computers itself, using a complex mathematical algorithm. The block thus created is given a unique, identifying code ~ a “hash” ~ by which it is distinguished from all other blocks and is added to the existing blockchain, where it now becomes visible to all connected computers only for viewing, making it completely transparent. The only user information that is visible is their digital signatures, or usernames.

Each computer in the network has its own shared copy of the blockchain. Thus there will be millions of copies of the same blockchain distributed in the millions of computers connected to the network and that is what makes it so secure ~ no single user or group of users can manipulate the digital information contained in the block. Once a block is added, and a vote can easily be translated into and stored as a block, it is automatically validated, at which point it become unalterable, rendering it impossible to tamper with. This immutability, along with decentralization and transparency, gives blockchain its universal appeal. It serves the objectives of creating information that is truthfully recorded and distributed, but cannot be edited or even copied.

Blockchain technology was first outlined in 1991 by Stuart Haber and W. Scott Stornetta, but started attracting attention only from January 2009, with the launch of Bitcoin. Bitcoin’s creator( s) known by the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto called it “a new electronic cash system that’s fully peer-to-peer, with no trusted third party.” In fact, being distributed among computers, it cannot be controlled by the governmental or any agency. Governments and central banks are naturally weary as this may grow up to be an uncontrollable monster and unbundle all traditional banking and financial institutions.

From a fledgling cryptocurrency born in 2008 into a real world cash alternative that is challenging the conventional financial transactions transcending national borders, and threatening governments and central banks the world over, Bitcoin’s growth has been truly stupendous, though with many ups and downs and it has spawned more than 1600 other cryptocurrencies. But it was only in 2017 that it started going ballistic, from almost $1,000 in January to peak at $19,511 in December, its total value touching almost $112 billion.

Some saw a bubble in it and warned of an impending collapse, other dismissed such a possibility with contempt, like John McAfee, the founder of the eponymous anti-virus company who famously said, “Those of you in the old school who believe this is a bubble simply have not understood the new mathematics of the Blockchain, or you did not care enough to try. Bubbles are mathematically impossible in this new paradigm.”

But a bubble indeed it was, and like all bubbles, its fall too was as spectacular as its rise. Within a few days it would lose more than 80 per cent of its peak value. It was one of history’s most notorious bubbles, which ruined not only many individual investors but also companies that supplied the crypto-ecosystem. However, its impact on the global financial system was rather limited as major banks or financial institutions had very little exposure to cryptocurrencies. But bursting of the bitcoin bubble had nothing to do with blockchain’s security architecture ~ its price crashed because of greed that propelled artificial demand, like all bubbles. Investors in India were also affected when a fraudulent company called BitConnect wound up its operations after defrauding the investors by a whopping Rs 22000 crore, poured in the wake of demonetization, and because of that probably, not much noise could be made. The RBI immediately imposed prohibition on banks from dealing with cryptocurrency-trading firms or individuals.

Bitcoin was the reason why blockchain was originally conceived, but now we understand that the technology has infinity of possible applications across the entire socio-economic spectrum. Blockchain is also threatening to decentralize the World Wide Web, and to reclaim the equalizing control and ownership back from the grasp of profit-hungry companies like Google, Facebook, Apple, etc., to usher in Web version 3.0. It is likely to be a highly disruptive process, and its creative destruction will upend most traditional business models.

Blockchain is actually about solving society’s ultimate challenge ~ trust ~ and in doing so, it eliminates the need for middlemen. At a time when elections ~ even in advanced democracies ~ are facing allegations of fraud or outside influence, use of technology to eliminate rigging is imperative. Yes, there will be challenges to overcome, but the advantages are too obvious to be ignored. As Brookings Institution had said, “Mobile voting using a safe and tested interface could eliminate voter fraud and boost turnout.” It can maintain transparency, minimize cost and streamline counting; in fact, voters can themselves detect any tampering of their votes. Foul play and voter coercion can be completely eliminated along with improved audit, authentication and convenience.