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Microsoft hopes that its technology will again help Americans trust the vote

Microsoft has partnered with a small Wisconsin town to test its state-of-the-art election security system called ElectionGuard. The tech giant says it can thwart hackers and help regain voter confidence in the election. That’s how.

When voters from Fulton, Wisconsin arrived on Tuesday to vote in a local election, the voting process seemed a little different.

Rather than the usual paper votes, voters made their selections on digital tablets, loaded them onto plastic cards with memory chips and inserted them into a card reader that saved the votes on a computer and printed hard copy of each card to be placed in an urn.

Another unknown feature of the day: a handful of Microsoft executives remained standing to explain and answer questions about the technology behind the new system, called ElectionGuard.

The elections in Fulton were the first official test of ElectionGuard, a voting software developed by Microsoft as part of its “Defending Democracy” project. ElectionGuard uses a relatively new form of encryption to secure votes and count them in minutes. It is designed to make it more difficult for hackers to enter the system, but also to make it immediately apparent if the system is tampered with.

Fulton Township, located about half an hour’s drive from Madison, has a population of 3,300. Less than 400 people drove through the snow to the town hall of Fulton, the city’s unique polling station, to cast their vote.

“I expected the same old voting process with small pencils and small dot shapes, but it wasn’t like that at all,” said Barbara Pifer, a Fulton voter. But Pifer said he was happy for the pilot: “It was good to see that they are trying to do something new and maybe start a process that will be a little safer and safer.”

Foreign interference in the American voting system has been the focus of attention for election officials, cyber security experts and many voters since Russia interfered with the 2016 presidential election. And last week, the main official of the electoral security of the intelligence community has told US lawmakers that Russia is believed to be taking steps to interfere in the 2020 election with the aim of helping President Donald Trump to win.

The ElectionGuard pilot also arrived a few days after the debut of a different digital voting system – an app developed by Shadow Inc. and implemented by the Iowa National Democratic Convention for Caucuses – was a public disaster.

Microsoft plans to avoid this mishap by trying its solution in much smaller elections and by hand counting paper cards as a backup.

The company does not anticipate that ElectionGuard will be used in the 2020 elections. But after technology has proven successful in Fulton, Microsoft executives say they are optimistic that it will be widely adopted by the 2024 presidential election.

The company made the software code free and publicly available.

“When we saw what happened in 2016, the efforts made by foreign opponents to actually influence the voting process in the United States, we concluded that we had a responsibility as technology leader to see what Microsoft could help improve security and protection. . of our elections, “said Tom Burt, Microsoft’s vice president of consumer safety and trust.

Making hacking “useless”

Most security experts agree that creating a truly adamant system is impossible.

“There is nothing I can do – anyone can do, moreover – to ensure there is no interference,” said Josh Benaloh, Microsoft’s senior cryptographer who developed the mechanism behind ElectionGuard.

For this reason, ElectionGuard is designed to be “obvious tampering”.

Each vote is individually guaranteed using a process called “homomorphic encryption”. Individual voting encryption protects voters’ privacy and discourages interference. If a bad actor wanted to prefer a particular candidate, he would have to do the difficult job of deciphering each vote to also know which votes to change, Benaloh said.

After the polls are closed, homomorphic encryption allows you to calculate the votes and decrypt the result without ever deciphering the individual votes. A verification application also performs a mathematical equation at the end: if no vote has been tampered with, that equation will produce an expected answer. If the answer is different, it will indicate that election officials should double-check election results using a backup method.

The computer that performs all this calculation is not connected to the Internet.

A paper vote was generated in Fulton for each vote and the hand was counted eventually to ensure the accuracy of the system. When ElectionGuard and the paper counting results exactly matched, Microsoft executives, polls, and city election officials all applauded.

“It is not assumed that the devices cannot be hacked because this is a silly assumption,” said Burt of Microsoft. “But what he does is that he says: even if he does (come violated), how can we make it useless for them?”

Restoring voter confidence

Microsoft’s solution is not just to secure elections against bad actors, but also to restore confidence among voters. After voting, voters left the polling station on Tuesday with a code that would allow them to access a portal the following day to confirm that their vote had been counted.

The portal does not specify in detail for whom each person voted, due to privacy issues, but because of the ElectionGuard verification application, it can confirm that the votes have been calculated accurately.

Voter confidence and the integrity of the voting systems are actually closely linked, said Meagan Wolfe, Wisconsin Electoral Commission administrator who worked with Microsoft to pilot ElectionGuard at Fulton.

“It doesn’t take a real violation or a real hack of a system, just a voice is enough to undermine someone’s trust,” said Wolfe.

“What we’ve heard from voters over the past few years is that they are interested in understanding the mechanisms of how and why their vote was cast correctly and how they can trust that nothing has changed in that process.”

In the 2016 presidential election, voter turnout dropped to 55%, a minimum of 20 years. Turnover rebounded in mid-2018, but confidence in the system remains a concern. Nearly 60% of U.S. voters surveyed in 2019 said they were not confident in the honesty of the election in the country, according to a Gallup poll released earlier this month.

“We are in a very important place in democracy where people wonder if it works anymore,” said Jamie Winterton, director of strategy for the Arizona State University’s Global Security Initiative. “Are these systems compromised to the point where I no longer have to worry about participating? It’s a really dangerous place to be. If people can go somewhere to see their vote counted, this helps restore some confidence.”

Securing elections with Big Tech?

Microsoft’s entry into electoral security comes at a time when great technology is increasingly under control to compromise democracy rather than protect it.

Several major tech companies (Microsoft is not among them) are facing antitrust probes from U.S. states and regulators. Social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter have been criticized for failing to stem misinformation and for their policies on verifying the advertising facts purchased by politicians.

Some Fulton voters on Tuesday expressed their skepticism about using technology to vote.

“I don’t really like this electronic stuff because it can be hacked. Where does the information go?” Said James Abts, who has lived in Fulton for 41 years. “I’m just a little wary, that’s all.”

But after the controversial 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore – and the many issues that came into play at the time – many electoral experts sought a better option.

The biggest challenge is to find a way to protect the many parts of the electoral system. Different jurisdictions across the country, often down to county level, can choose their own voting mechanism. In addition, voter registration databases must be protected and election results must be reported securely at state and federal level.

“American democracy is messy,” said Richard Forno, deputy director of the Center for Cybersecurity at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

Forno said it would be difficult to devise a solution to protect all those pieces of the American electoral system without the help of great technology.

“Who else will do it? A technology company has the money and the people to do research, development and testing, “Forno said, adding that other solutions could come from academics and technology start-ups.

For Microsoft, ElectionGuard is not intended to be a commercial effort.

“This is a step that we are taking for free, we will not generate any income from this,” said Burt. “The question is what can we do as a society to help defend our democracy and protect the vote?”

Microsoft has released the open source code for ElectionGuard, so that local election officials can use it without necessarily involving the company. Microsoft said the software will work with any voting system, which can vary widely across the country, as long as there is some electronic element. In Fulton, the software has been linked to the existing voting hardware created by VotingWorks not for profit.

After the Fulton pilot was successful, Burt said Microsoft plans to seek out other jurisdictions and voting hardware vendors for further, wider ElectionGuard tests.

And while ElectionGuard itself will not be a profit factor for Microsoft, Burt said that people’s trust in technology is the key to the company’s future.

“It will improve the security of the global ecosystem,” said Burt. “How do our shareholders benefit? Because if, in the long run, people feel safe and participate in a digital ecosystem, and if we have good products and services to offer to that ecosystem, then we will make money. “



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