Smart countries take advantage of the cyber revolution – Marina Kaljurand

The former Estonian foreign minister, Marina Kaljurand, writes that regardless of the doubts – as is the case against online voting in Estonia – smart countries take advantage of the digital world and don’t step back when facing the challenges caused by the use of information and communication technology.

Safety and security of national voting systems is a topic that is addressed at almost all cyber security conferences. Nobody has proved that i-voting is less secure than traditional voting with paper and pencil and voting boxes. There are numerous researches conducted by Estonian and foreign ICT experts on e-voting in general, and e-voting in Estonia – and I would like to draw attention to these.

Basic points

First, Estonian e-voting is internet voting or i-voting – a system that allows voters to cast ballots online and should not be confused with electronic voting systems involving technical devices/machinery and used in some other countries.

Secondly, all digital services are vulnerable, as are all smart devices and “offline” services. Some risks are common – eg human factor involved in both voting systems, some risks are different: hacking versus corruption or falsifying of voting results. There is no 100% secure voting system – neither online nor offline. But there are possibilities, even obligation to face the challenges and take appropriate measures to minimise risks.

Thirdly, the Estonian i-voting system is developed by Cybernetica – a well-established R&D intensive ICT company that grew out from the Institute of Cybernetics of the Academy of Sciences of Estonia – in close cooperation with foreign experts, including the testing of the system, finding vulnerabilities etc.

And finally, i-voting could only be introduced in the countries where people trust the government and where it takes all necessary steps – political, legal, and educational – to provide secure and safe digital/e-services. I-voting can’t be imposed on people but people can demand it from the state, the same way as people can demand better services in the “offline world”.

Independent studies

An international study, “Potential and Challenges of voting in the EU”, commissioned and supervised by the European parliament, analyses e-elections from the EU perspective. The study looks into recent internet voting cases and practices in Estonia, Norway and Switzerland.

Here are some key findings:

Estonia is a successful case of implementation of internet voting: the number of individuals voting over the internet has been increasing consistently, voters who try internet voting remain loyal to this option, and Internet voting is now entirely diffused over the electorate.

Switzerland has been carrying a gradual and decentralised bottom-up implementation of Internet voting coordinated at the national level. The results have been extremely encouraging and the plans are to further expand the system.

Norway conducted trials between 2011 and 2013 but cancelled the project in 2014 due to security concerns expressed by political actors and absence of increase in turnout levels.

The study concludes that “Internet voting has been implemented successfully and has gone beyond the trial stage in multiple contexts. E-voters are growing in numbers and remain loyal to Internet voting after having been exposed to it. Internet voting for the European Parliament elections could build on the Estonian case.”

The study also underlines that “in a sense, and despite legal, security and political concerns that will probably always be there, independently from whether one has introduced Internet voting or not, the European Union now has the opportunity to take up these challenges in order to bring elections of the European Parliament closer to the citizens. For sure, Internet voting won’t be the panacea for European democracy. But it has the potential to facilitate access to the polls and serve as an example for other constituencies concerned with the modernisation of electoral processes.”

For further research, please read the study “E-voting in Estonia: Technological Diffusion and Other Developments Over 10 years“, conducted by one of the leading experts in the field, Kristjan Vassil, as well as Mihkel Solvak, both senior research fellows at the Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies at the University of Tartu.

I would also like to suggest a study by Maarit Ströbele, Nele Leosk and Alexander H. Trechsel, “Two Countries / Two Decades / Two Outcomes: A brief comparison of e-government solutions in Estonia and Switzerland”.

Smart countries take advantage

These are just a few references to independent studies that provide information about practical, technical and political aspects of e-voting/i-voting in Estonia and in other countries. Digital/e/i-services are never 100% safe and secure, as also offline services are never 100% safe and secure. But the risks can and should be minimised.

Cyber revolution came to stay, digital services came to stay. Smart countries take advantage of that and don’t step back when facing the challenges caused by the use of ICTs. On the contrary – they face the challenges and tackle the challenges for the benefit of their people and societies.

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The opinions in this article are those of the author. The article is a slightly amended version of Marina Kaljurand’s blog post, published first on her web page. The cover image is illustrative (Shutterstock.)

About the author: Marina Kaljurand

Marina Kaljurand served as Estonian foreign minister from July 2015 to October 2016. In 2011–2014, Kaljurand was the Estonia ambassador to the United States and Mexico and in 2011–2013 also to Canada, in 2007–2011 Estonian ambassador to Kazakhstan, and in 2005–2008 to the Russian Federation and in 2004–2006 to Israel. She currently chairs The Global Commission on the Stability of Cybersecurity.