We can arrange almost everything via the Internet. Yet next week in the Netherlands, we will simply stand in a booth with a red pencil when we go to vote. Can’t we do that online? “No,” say researchers at iHub, the Interdisciplinary Hub for digitalization and society, part of the Radboud University in Nijmegen.
It is ill-advised to organize a political election via the Internet. That is the conclusion reached by the research team of Bernard van Gastel, assistant professor of computer science at Nijmegen University. Scientists from various disciplines, including philosophy and history but also law and computer science, have been working together on this within iHub since 2019. Together, they put the influence of digitalization on society under a magnifying glass. Van Gastel is head of the iLab, iHub’s experimental living lab.
They recently made a prototype at iLab for internet voting. It was evaluated in a pilot involving the municipalities of Amsterdam and Groningen. The question was to what extent digital voting works in the case of online civic participation, such as voting on a neighborhood plan or on the layout of a street by residents. ” We can then draw conclusions from this pilot about local or national elections,” says van Gastel. Voting at home via a computer is not technically very complicated. However, there are risks involved.
The project made use of the IRMA app, which was developed by iHub together with the Privacy by Design Foundation. This is an app in which data can be loaded, such as address and date of birth. If an application needs this data, the IRMA app only shows what is strictly necessary. So, for example, someone’s age instead of their full date of birth, and place of residence instead of their full address. As such, Privacy is better protected. “Similar to analogue elections, internet voting consists of two steps. First, the right to vote is checked, and an anonymous voting card is issued. Then, this voting card can be handed in at another location and a choice can be made. This allows us to guarantee the confidentiality of the vote,” Van Gastel explains.
Freedom to vote
“The problem with elections doesn’t revolve around the digital aspect, but the fact that voting is not taking place at a designated location,” says Van Gastel. Voting at a physical location virtually eliminates the possibility of others collecting and filling out ballots, as ID verification takes place. “By voting at a location, then freedom to vote is guaranteed,” says Van Gastel. “And it’s easier to check if your vote has been counted. People tend to trust an analog voting system more.”
At iHub, we are continually looking at the effects that digital solutions have on society. Nowadays, a lot of company, non-profit and government systems are digitalized. Many decisions are made automatically, based on algorithms. However, this kind of system is a tool, not a goal. And so, according to Van Gastel, you have to look closely at what happens to people when you use the technology. How do you see to it that it is safe to use, how do you limit as much as possible the ever-increasing risk of data leaks or data theft? And how do you ensure that the human dimension is preserved?
What requirements do we set?
Although digital voting is technically possible, Van Gastel opposes political elections via the Internet. “The discussion surrounding modern voting quickly turns towards which technology can best be used instead about the actual legal requirements needed for voting. We can guarantee the confidentiality of the vote reasonably well, but not the freedom to vote for whoever you want to vote for. The discussion should be about how important we think this freedom is. The technique can then follow accordingly.”
Also interesting: One day, the voting machine is going to be used in the Netherlands’