Blockchain Voting Prone to Nationwide ‘Election Failures’: Report

In brief

  • A new paper asserts that blockchain-based voting is essentially unsafe.
  • The paper’s senior author is MIT professor Ron Rivest, one of the inventors of RSA encryption.
  • Despite growing evidence about the ineffectiveness of blockchain-based voting, prominent figures in the blockchain space continue to trash traditional voting methods.

Bad news for blockchain utopians and election conspiracists: According to an ominously-titled new paper from MIT—“Going from Bad to Worse: From Internet Voting to Blockchain Voting”— blockchain-based voting is significantly less secure than voting by mail or in person.

A recently released draft of the paper, which comes from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), asserts that internet- and blockchain-based voting would “greatly increase the risk of undetectable, nation-scale election failures.” Moreover, however appealing the prospect of instantaneous online voting may seem, it may actually contribute to voter disenfranchisement. The paper was co-authored by scientists Sunoo Park, Michael Specter, Neha Narula, and Ronald Rivest. Rivest, the senior author, was one of the inventors of RSA encryption, which is used in everything from VPNs to web browsers.

A table from the paper.

The paper cites a blockchain-based voting app called Voatz, which was first piloted in West Virginia’s midterm elections in 2018; according to the paper’s co-authors, the app “suffers from serious security vulnerabilities enabling attackers to monitor votes being cast and to change or block ballots at large scale,” which is about as damning an assessment as an online voting app could possibly receive.

This isn’t the first evidence that blockchain-based voting is unsafe, either—earlier this year, a different team of MIT scientists wrote a paper about the security issues surrounding Voatz, and the company filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court claiming that third-party security researchers shouldn’t be allowed to investigate apps without authorization. The scope of the new MIT paper differs in that it’s not just about Voatz, but, appropriately, the company is name-checked more than once. The team at Voatz did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Outside of MIT, a 2019 piece in Fast Company from Nir Kshetri, a blockchain researcher and professor of management at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, points to small-scale trials and a poorly-conceived blockchain voting test in Russia as evidence that “blockchain voting is not yet safe or ready for service.”

Still, many prominent figures in the blockchain space have pushed the idea that we should switch over to blockchain-based voting nationwide. Blockchain voting was even a part of 2020 presidential candidate Andrew Yang’s official platform

As election votes were being (slowly, but not fraudulently) tabulated earlier this month, crypto entrepreneur and one-time Zuckerberg rival Tyler Winklevoss expressed his frustration via Twitter, writing that “the technology and cryptography exists to allow us all to vote online in a fraud-proof manner… It’s as if the Internet doesn’t exist.” Ethereum co-creator Vitalik Buterin and Changpeng Zheng, CEO of the crypto exchange Binance, also tweeted about their interest in blockchain voting:

Plenty of blockchain technologies remain relatively secure, and things are getting safer all the time. When it comes to voting, though, scientists aren’t convinced.