West Virginia to offer Voatz biometric voting app statewide for overseas military

Military service personnel from West Virginia serving overseas will be able to vote in the November U.S. midterm elections with a biometric smartphone app from Voatz, in an attempt to make absentee participation easier that one critic calls “a horrific idea,” CNN reports.

West Virginia trialed the technology for primary elections in two counties earlier this year, and the Office of the West Virginia Secretary of State, Mac Warner, signed off on their success after performing four audits, including of its cloud and blockchain infrastructure. Voter identity is verified with a fingerprint scan, as well as the popular ID document and video selfie method, and votes are secured within a blockchain.

The idea has elicited criticism, however.

“Mobile voting is a horrific idea,” said Center for Democracy and Technology Chief Technologist Joseph Lorenzo Hall told CNN. “It’s internet voting on people’s horribly secured devices, over our horrible networks, to servers that are very difficult to secure without a physical paper record of the vote.”

Avi Rubin, Johns Hopkins’ Information Security Institute technical director, has worked on electronic voting systems since 1997, told Wired that voting with a smartphone app is no better than voting online with a desktop computer. “The fact that someone is throwing around the blockchain buzzword does nothing to make this more secure,” cautioned Rubin. “This is as bad an idea as there is.”

Experts contacted by Wired expressed concern about the permissioned blockchain Voatz uses, saying the blockchain is vulnerable to interference from those maintaining it, and about the possibility that the facial recognition could be vulnerable to spoofing or racial bias.

Voatz CEO Nimit Sawhney says the facial recognition results are checked by people, and that even if malware is present on the device and is not detected by the scan Voatz runs before downloading, the system is difficult to manipulate.

“It’s theoretically possible, if that malware had been specifically written to intercept votes passing, to reverse-engineer our application, break all our keys, specifically modify if somebody marks oval A change it to oval B, and then bypass the identifier and send it to the network, but that is so, so hard to do in real time,” he says. “It is possible, but we haven’t found a way to do it.”

During a Utah GOP caucus in April, some people were unable to make the Voatz app work, though Sawhney says the problem was that they did not leave enough time for the complete process of downloading the app and authenticating themselves before polls closed.

Voatz anonymizes votes by deleting personal information and replacing it with a unique identifier, and will had deliver the cryptographic keys necessary to access the cast votes on election night. As election officials access each vote, they will print a copy, and the company intends to add an optional screenshot feature for voters before the November elections.

Absentee ballots can be filed online under some circumstances for voters from 31 states and D.C., though 28 states require voters to give up their right to a secret ballot. While West Virginia will make the technology available statewide, it is up to individual counties to decide if they will use it in the upcoming midterms.

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