Scottish Government proposals that could see electronic voting introduced may leave Scotland vulnerable to election interference by foreign agents, campaigners have claimed.
With a consultation on electoral reform due to close on 29 March, the Scottish Government said it wants to “explore and trial the potential of electronic voting solutions”.
This could help increase voter participation, provide “choice and flexibility” over how Scots vote and assist people who “find voting in elections challenging”.
The proposals under consideration include electronic voting, as well as introducing technology to allow voting remotely over the internet or from mobile phones.
However, critics of the plans have expressed concern and warned that future elections could be targeted by outside parties.
Matthew Rice, Scottish director of Open Rights Group, said his organisation’s own research on electronic voting – which includes observing in countries with online voting systems such as Estonia – suggested that hack-proof technology was not yet available.
He claimed that with the rise of cyber attacks across the world – often linked to countries such as Russian and China – and the alleged hacking of everything from power plants to voting systems in the US, the risks associated with electoral voting must be properly assessed.
The three critical factors for planning voting systems – security, veritability and anonymity – were challenged by electronic voting, he added.
“It’s a tough combination for any system to get right,” he said. “We have done ten years of research into electronic voting and in our view it is just not there. Because it has some fundamental aspects online there are huge security issues that pen and paper simply do not have.
“We have got to think what would happen if a foreign actor was interested in the outcome of our elections. It [electronic voting] always introduces security risks. We are saying that it should not be rolled out.”
Rice said that despite Estonia heralding the success of its electronic voting system, introduced in 2014, Open Rights Group observers who attended the general election were not convinced by the security in place.
“What we found was a critical vulnerability either by hacking their machine, in the same way that your webcam could be hacked or if there was an attack [on the server] that would mean that votes could be changed at scale,” he added.
He said the lack of paper trail and ability to recount could also be problematic while technical explanations of security systems, which were difficult to understand, could be exploited by those looking to convince others of vote rigging.
Scotland has already suffered cyber attacks and The Ferret reported recently that three Scottish councils had lost sensitive data.
Some commentators have said that urgent action is needed to address a “democratic deficit” which saw voter turn-outs fall to 66 percent last year.
But Rice claimed there were better solutions to this problem including moving away from first past the post systems.
Green MSP Patrick Harvie, who is a member of the Open Rights Group, warned against being “swept along” by seemingly “shiny” proposals.
“I’m deeply concerned that e-voting is incapable of achieving acceptable standards of anonymity, security and verifiability, and that it’s only being proposed thanks to lobbying by businesses which make a profit from selling the technology,” he said.
“There’s no good evidence that it would boost turnout, and we know there are far more important things we can do to achieve that.”
Willie Sullivan, Scottish director of the Electoral Reform Society, also said that careful consideration was needed.
He added: “While security is a significant factor, especially with current concerns about hacking into systems or altering programs, there are also substantial risks of systems crashing.
“The cost of installing a number of electronic screens in each polling station would be prohibitive and there is also evidence to suggest a possible reduction in turnout.”
However, he also cautioned against ruling electronic voting out in the future, as long as adequate testing and development time was factored in.
“Electronic counting was initially viewed with suspicion but proved successful, ” Sullivan added. “With the right developments and information provided to voters, there could be a case for trialling electronic voting at a later date.”
Other political scientists claimed that other methods, including compulsory voting as used in Australia, would be a more effective and secure method of improving turn-out.
“We need a system that instils confidence and trust,” said Dr Mark Shepard, senior lecturer in politics at the University of Strathclyde. “Electronic voting would need to be piloted and checked thoroughly.
“As well as issues of electronic interference, voting remotely also raise the question of just who is doing the voting. The current system at least makes it easier for individuals to control their vote and not have it controlled from a distance for them.”
Vote “hacking” has been an increasing concern for western democracies since allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 US election.
A January 2017 assessment by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) stated that Russian leadership favored presidential candidate Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton.
It added that Russian president Vladimir Putin personally ordered an “influence campaign” to harm Clinton’s electoral chances and “undermine public faith in the US democratic process”.
Last November, it was revealed that Twitter accounts with links to the Kremlin were posting inflammatory information around the Brexit vote and terror attacks in the UK and Europe.
Ben Nimmo, a UK-based intelligence analyst and disinformation expert for US think-tank Atlantic Council, said: “Relations between Russian and the UK are, or course, far from warm just now.
“What we have been seeing is a pattern of behaviour that is pushing for destabilisation. There are all sorts of ways in which the UK entering into a major prolonged constitutional crisis could be useful. It gets the UK out of the way.”
Nimmo claimed the behaviour of foreign hackers, including China, should be taken into consideration before any introduction of electronic voting.
“I think if we are serious about electronic voting we need to take seriously the danger of hacking,” he added.
“It has been shown that there are plenty of hackers out there for plenty of different reasons. Electronic voting needs to be demonstrably reliable and it’s vital we always have a back-up so that when there are questions these can be answered.”
The Scottish Government consultation also seeks views on other reform proposals. They include suggestions for varying the way candidates on local government ballot papers are presented, and extending the franchise to all people who are residents in Scotland.
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Our voting systems have remained broadly unchanged for over 100 years and now is a good time to think about modernising and innovation.
“We already have electronic counting for local government elections which is why we are considering introducing electronic voting and whether this could make voting more inclusive and increase turnaround – ensuring the security of technology and the integrity of the voting process will also be key considerations.”