Roman Aleshkin: Blockchain in government services will ensure trust between state and citizens
Why do we need online voting on the blockchain, how to assure the secrecy of balloting during the e-elections and what risks exist when using such online systems in e-democracy? Roman Aleshkin, the head of the Polys blockchain project from Kaspersky Lab’s accelerator, answered those questions in an exclusive interview for LetKnow.News.
- What is the role of digitalisation in the modern state?
- The role of digitalisation is now comprehensive. Unfortunately, or fortunately, this is true not only about the state, but absolutely all aspects of life. At the same time, government processes and workflows best fit into this concept and it is easiest to digitise them.
- What is necessary for the concept of e-government and the state to become a reality?
- It requires political and economic will. We need economic incentives, because it is understood that such transitions make processes cheaper, faster and more accessible to all parties. Therefore, desire is more likely to be needed here, and there are certainly tools, methods, people and companies that can do that in Russia.
Moreover, this concept is gradually being introduced and some points of interaction with the state have already been digitised. It is already very often not necessary to go somewhere, to contact someone and wait for something. There are already services that can be used over the Internet. Therefore, the question here is not that it is necessary to wait for some kind of solution, after which everything will be digitised, but that this concept is gradually being introduced in various aspects.
- What are the advantages of blockchain in the state apparatus?
- This is a very general question, which depends on different scenarios. But blockchain systems, in the first place, are designed to solve trust issues in those systems where it is necessary to establish business processes between different participants. And at the same time, when there is no possibility of participation of some independent mediator, or when it is simply not implied by architecture there. If we are talking about public services, then blockchain is necessary in scenarios where the trust of various participants of departments and citizens is primarily important.
- Where has the blockchain been used for voting? What are some successful cases?
- We have been developing the Polys online voting system for 3 years. We started product development in 2016. One of the first cases where the system was introduced was students voting. There were several stages of elections at the Higher School of Economics in the youth regional parliament in Saratov.
Of the last fairly large cases at the state level, one can note the Volgograd region, where a vote was taken on the distribution of the budget for various initiatives and municipal projects, from playgrounds to monuments. By the way, people were quite actively involved in the process and shared projects on social networks. As a result, 80,000 people took part in the process during the voting. And for the first case, given that it was the Volgograd region, this figure is quite considerable.
- What opportunities does the blockchain open in e-voting?
- Electronic voting is a very sensitive issue requiring trust in the system. And here the blockchain is designed to provide this trust, including transparency and invariability of the voting results.
In the case of regular voting at the polling station, observers monitor the entire process, ensuring transparency of expression of will. And for online voting, an electronic tool is needed for observation. Blockchain system provides such things, that’s the very beauty that many people understand. Therefore, in my opinion, blockchain systems are an effective way to build online voting.
- What are the risks of using the e-voting system?
- Here we have an extensive threat model. There are technological risks, social risks, when forced to vote under pressure, or when votes are bought. As for technological risks, it’s a threat of hacking the system. You can write a very secure centralised system so that it can be viewed and audited. But the question still remains - is that version of the code running on the servers, is that version of the code running in memory, is there some kind of virus attack? All these stories are very difficult to answer. And here the blockchain system comes to help out.
To protect against such threats, you can use the blockchain with smart contracts, for example, to count votes at the end of the vote. This code is executed not on one server, but on several. In other words, it can be used on external monitoring servers, and when they get the same result, there is consensus. It means that you can trust the results of those vote counts.
In order to somehow influence that count, you need to attack and manipulate not one server, but many, and you need to do this in synchronisation, which greatly complicates the task of hacking. And with a high degree of probability it will make this manipulation noticeable, because the distributed system is transparent.
- The Moscow City Duma plans to conduct a pilot vote on the blockchain. Would you describe that prototype as ready enough to do the job?
- I’m following the situation. The system crashed on the very first test, but as far as we know, the second test passed without a hitch. Of course, this is the first step that is being taken towards e-elections, and therefore it is being implemented on a small scale.
As for centralisation, there is always some compromise between centralisation and distribution. Because the state has a certain monopoly on the identification of citizens, since this is not done by some private companies. Nevertheless, blockchain elements provide the ability to observe and control to ensure that the voice has been received and recorded on the blockchain in its true form.
We have an idea at the hypothesis level that if we separate the older and younger generations, the older generation is used to living offline and going to housing and communal services and banks, and the younger one is used to living online and uses online banking and other online tools. And in this case, in my opinion, the presence of an offline tool is a kind of comfortable way of voting for older people and an uncomfortable way of voting for younger ones. And the lack of an online tool is a kind of digital inequality, which leads to a reduced participation in the voting of the younger generation and its interest in such political processes.
As for the experiment, which is being conducted at the Moscow City Duma, in my opinion, it’s certainly good and useful. And it is clear that at first there were some mistakes, but this happens when developing complex systems. Let's see, there are still a few tests ahead and the September 8th vote itself. And it seems to me that there is a reason to be proud that Moscow decided to conduct such an experiment for the first time. It is worth a lot and from a political point of view it is a rather difficult decision.
- How is secrecy of the vote in blockchain elections ensured? And how is this implemented in the voting system in the elections to the Moscow City Duma?
- I am not a developer of the voting system in the Moscow City Duma, so I can only partially answer this question. It is possible to provide the secrecy of voting in different ways. There are ways to mathematically break the connection between a transaction and its sender. And you can use the encryption of ballots and not disclose the sender of the transaction, or you can count over encrypted data by using the homomorphic properties of the encryption system. This is how we used it in Polys.
In the case of the Moscow City Duma, as far as I know, transactions are mixed and there is a data gap between the user identification and the transaction itself, which is subsequently written to the blockchain.
- Is it possible to secure against voting under pressure in e-election systems?
- In paper voting, voting under pressure is also possible, as well as buying votes. In case of online voting, that is also possible, but there is a simple way to overcome this phenomenon - namely to allow a person to vote several times and take into account only his last vote. Thus, the economic connection between the buyer and seller of the ballot is broken, because the buyer can not be sure what he is buying, since the seller can then re-vote.
You can also break the connection between ballot and user ID. For example, to make it so that there are records that certain ballot entered there, but you can forbid it to be read cryptographically.
- What trends can you see in the use of blockchain for e-democracy?
- Now there are a number of fairly different experiments at different levels. There are several startups that use blockchain for online voting. And here it is necessary to note a certain sensitivity of this issue. Since the political apparatus is often inert, and some discussions don’t occur very often. However, the trend for the use of blockchain in e-democracy, of course, exists. It is relatively slow and does not have such an explosive nature as some commercial projects with ordinary, non-state companies.