E-voting: Tricky tech and trickier politics
Those who say digital IDs and biometrics can restore Americans’ faith in voting increasingly sound like kids trying to convince themselves that their divorcing parents will patch things up.
A recent industry panel was called to ask, can e-voting deliver a more accurate election outcome? It succeeded only in peeling back a layer of not-insignificant tech challenges to lay bare a political environment that thrives on conflict.
In fact, the discussion, sponsored by facial biometrics provider Onfido, was one of the few such industry gatherings that acknowledged technology’s limited capability to solve something.
But in all honesty, not even Microsoft co-founder Steve Ballmer, once that company’s famously bombastic cheerleader, would have enough powder to pretty this situation.
The outlook for the fall U.S. general election does not look good. The White House has said the President can only lose if the election is rigged. Mail balloting, something that has performed reliably in this country since the 1800s (and makes sense in a 2020 pandemic), cannot be trusted, according to the President.
Most sobering is how the White House is playing coy about whether the President will leave if he loses in November.
There were two panelists (a third could not keep a good Zoom connection): Federic Kerrest, co-founder and COO of authentication firm Okta, and Jeremy Grant, president of the Better Identity Coalition. The coalition strives to bring public policy makers and industry leaders together, seeking to convince people that it is safe and secure to do business online.
Kerrest said authentication technology is ready to remake U.S. polling as early as the 2024 mid-terms, though he stopped short of predicting this could happen even if all other stars aligned, too. Grant, who repeatedly stated his desire to be optimistic about this situation, said maybe 2030.
“Election systems are really complex,” Grant said. “There’re not easily improved by technology, and if we don’t think through it carefully, there are lots of ways to make it worse.”
Kerrest focused more on society’s role. More and more people are doing their banking online, putting their assets and personal information on line. The assumption is that Americans only need to warm to e-voting the way they have with online financial transactions.
The technology and government pieces at least present “tractable” challenges, he said.
Challenges like deploying biometrics and AI for registering people, a process that is gaining ground with financial institutions (largely in Europe).They are completing digital onboarding of new customers. There is also the creation of a uniform ID based on proven standards that would prevent tampering with identities, Kerrest said. And legislators would need to decide who can verify identities.
Both he and Grant joined in spotlighting what they said is an unnecessary and counterproductive rift between e-voting advocates and the cybersecurity community.
All systems can be hacked, the pair said, so the task becomes one of creating an unarguable backup record. That could be hand-marked paper ballots, they agreed.
That is not a step backward from full e-voting, they said. It could be a middle ground between mail balloting and digital voting until a better security regime can be created. Or it could just be that paper is a good storage medium for voting.
Regardless, progress will be more fulsome if the two communities could stop acting like political opponents.