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Ontario civic elections: the problem with online voting

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In Governance
Apr 4th, 2018
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Aleksander Essex

Aleksander Essex

Western prof worried by lack of Canadian standards governing how voter data is kept safe

By Colin Butler · CBC News

A Western University professor who studies cyber security is urging Ontario municipalities to truly understand how online voting works before it’s implemented, a technology that he warns carries little transparency and has no guarantee that votes are being counted correctly.

It turns out hand counting paper ballots is the best solution we have.

Aleksander Essex, a professor of computer science, who heads a Western University lab that investigates issues of online security and privacy calls online voting “one of the greatest open problems in cyber security.”It comes after many of Ontario’s more than 400 municipalities have already made up their minds whether or not they will use the technology when Ontarians go to the polls in provincewide civic elections on October 22, 2018.

The province requires municipalities to pass a by-law allowing an online ballot by May 1, 2017 in order to allow online voting in the 2018 civic election, but the problem, according to Essex, is there’s no comprehensive government list tracking which communities are using a technology that has no defined standards, limited transparency and no way to ensure votes are being registered correctly.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that some municipalities don’t even know where the servers they use for the online voting are located.

Online elections are really not local elections – Aleksander Essex

“The election server itself may not even be in Canada,” Essex said. “We did a study last year on the Western Australian state election and we found the private keys. These are the encryption keys to protect your ballot and voter credentials. We found those keys living on servers all over the world, including in China.”

“That’s not a hack that’s just the way the cloud provider provides denial of service protection. What we’re seeing is that online elections are really not local elections, there’s really a multi-national character to the server infrastructure.”

Essex said online voting also leaves the election potentially vulnerable to hacking, through malware, most likely on a home computer.

A number of Ontario cities and provincial agencies have already proven they’re vulnerable to cyber attacks, including the cities of Pickering, Cambridge, an Oshawa hospital, the Ontario Privacy Commissioner and the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board.

​Cities in Southwestern Ontario using online voting in 2018:

Sarnia
St Thomas
Stratford
Cambridge

Cities in Southwestern Ontario not using online voting in 2018:

London
Windsor
Kitchener
Waterloo

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