20 Sep 2018

Plans for online voting at local govt elections 'dangerous'

11:54 am on 20 September 2018

An Australian IT expert says New Zealand would be crazy to adopt online voting for local government elections and would be opening itself up to widespread electoral fraud.

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Photo: 123rf

Nine councils including Auckland, Wellington, Hamilton and Tauranga want to use it at next year's elections, despite there being few examples overseas of where it is being used successfully or safely.

Online voting was first used at government elections in Estonia in 2005.

Its take up by the rest of the world since then has been limited at best, in large part due to vulnerabilities in its systems that allowed hackers to cast fake votes and rig elections.

Australian IT expert Vanessa Teague alerted authorities to faults in the 2015 New South Wales state elections, where a quarter of a million voted online.

There were plenty of hackers worldwide happy to take money from a vested interest looking to manipulate an election in their favour, she said.

"Tilting... even a local council [election] in a relatively big city like Christchurch or Auckland might make all the difference in planning decisions worth tens of millions of dollars. So there's a huge incentive for electoral manipulation, even at what we think of as the low and unimportant levels of government."

The push from the nine New Zealand councils to move online comes despite a 2016 decision to scrap a trial of the system due to security fears.

Dr Teague said the world had not become a safer place since then.

Australian IT expert Vanessa Teague

Australian IT expert Vanessa Teague Photo: RNZ/ FILE

"If anything, what we've seen is a more concrete set of examples of undemocratic countries deliberately interfering in democratic elections, in particular the example of Russian interference in the United States and also in the French presidential elections."

One of the companies that stood a good chance of being put in charge of voting here, Electionz dot com, already ran online ballots for business board elections.

IT expert Dave Lane said it had already shown it was not up to the job of providing a secure system.

He took part in one of its online elections and got this reply when he contacted its help desk over a problem.

IT expert Dave Lane

IT expert Dave Lane Photo: Conan Young / RNZ

"So they said, 'you're having problems, oh do you have your password, would you like me to give it to you?' And I said 'you don't even know who I am...you just rang me up to respond to my problem and you don't have any idea who I am and you're happy to give me my password'?"

While the number of people choosing to exercise their democratic right was continuing to fall, online voting was not the answer, he said.

Proponents simply did not understand just how vulnerable online systems were to hacking.

"Once trust is lost in the voting system, it's gone. You cannot trial something and hope that if the trust is lost that people will suddenly start to trust it again when you change it back."

Electionz dot com's managing director, Steve Kilpatrick, said there wasn't a breach as claimed by Mr Lane as the company had authorised his firm to hand out passwords over the phone.

Mr Kilpatrick, who recently visited Estonia to see how things were run there, said opponents of online voting were simply afraid of progress.

"When automobiles were first introduced some people didn't like that. They forced people to walk in front of the cars with a flag. We've got to advance haven't we? We've got to keep moving forward."

Mr Kilpatrick maintained the system his company used was secure and said he would be responding to a request for a proposal from the nine councils to run an online voting trial next year.

A bill allowing the trial to take place was currently before parliament.