10 Sep 2015

Company insists online voting is secure

9:26 am on 10 September 2015

The company that has been selected to conduct online voting at next year's local body elections is reassuring people its system is secure.

On Monday, Radio New Zealand reported that IT experts were worried the elections could be derailed, or subject to fraud, if they were moved online.

An online election in NSW was hacked by computer science academics.

An online election in NSW was hacked by computer science academics. Photo: 123RF

Palmerston North, Porirua, Whanganui, Rotorua and Matamata Piako councils have already signed up for the proposed trial. Christchurch City Council votes today on whether it will take part.

If all 10 of the councils that showed an initial interest sign up, 690,000 eligible voters would have the chance to vote online, making it the largest online election ever held.

Electionz.com, which runs online voting for companies and unions in New Zealand, has been selected to run the trial.

Managing director Steve Kilpatrick said voters could be reassured its system was secure.

"We commissioned two different organisations to run penetration tests on our software. These take something like five man weeks each and they cost an awful lot of money.

"They are a very, very thorough process to go through."

In March, online voting in the New South Wales (NSW) elections had to be suspended for several hours after two computer science academics found a vulnerability that would allow a hacker to read and manipulate votes.

One of those academics is Melbourne University's Dr Vanessa Teague.

She said 66,000 votes had already been cast before they discovered the vulnerability, and there was no way of knowing whether those votes were genuine or not.

"What would've happened if we hadn't figured out there was a problem in iVote? The problem would have still been there, they just would have cast all 280,000 votes over that system while it was vulnerable."

Dr Teague said a second weakness in the system was only discovered months after the elections had been held.

"The serious implication of the election having been vulnerable to an attack; that did not in fact become known to the public until months after the election.

"I don't think there's been a full acknowledgement from the Electoral Commission of just what the full implications of that are for the integrity of those votes."

Mr Kilpatrick from Electionz.com observed the New South Wales elections.

He said the weakness identified by the academics would only have allowed a small number of votes to be changed, and would not have had a major influence on the ballot.

"It would have taken something like 70 computers an hour to crack that particular code."

The case for online voting in New Zealand has already been made by a government-commissioned working group including technology commentator and National Party pollster David Farrar.

He said while it may not boost voter participation, it would stop voter turnout at local body elections sliding further still.

"People are in the habit of actually using the internet to do their everyday business, and yes there are risks, but the whole idea of the trial is to actually say, 'let's see what does happen, let's see if we can do better than other countries have done'."

The government will make a final decision in December on whether to proceed with a trial.

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