ISLAMABAD: The Election Com­mission of Pakistan (ECP) has formed a committee to conduct a technical audit of the Internet voting solution process that was proposed by the National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra).

The task force formed on the directions of the Supreme Court is mandated to assess the technical soundness of the web-based automated system that has been designed to help overseas Pakistanis vote through the Internet. Only expatriates who have been issued national identity cards for overseas Pakistanis and valid machine-readable passports will be eligible to use the system to cast their votes.

Dr Muhammad Manshad Satti, Chief Executive Officer of IT Butler, Dubai, UAE, has been asked to lead the team. Other members include Muhammad Arshad, Director General of Law, ECP; Dr Umar Saif, Chairman of the Punjab Information Technology Board, Shahbaz Khan of the KP Informational Technology Board, Dr Syed Taha Ali, Assistant Professor in the National University of Science and Technology, Islamabad; and representatives from the Lahore University of Management Sciences and the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi

Task force is mandated to assess technical soundness of automated system made to help overseas Pakistanis vote online

The task force has been commissioned days after the ECP rejected the rumours circulating on social media about the availability of electronic voting facilities for overseas Pakistanis. In an official statement, the ECP said that all rumours concerning the availability of such a system were false.

The ECP explained that they had been considering the idea of remote voting facilities for overseas Pakistanis for a long time. However, the mechanisms involved in the operation would have to go through several checks and technical development phases. It would also require multiple pilot tests to ensure that the security is foolproof and the system cannot be compromised. The ECP also pointed out that at the time there were no clear legal provisions for the use of electronic voting.

A senior ECP official, when contacted, insisted that a hasty introduction of any new technology would be a recipe for disaster and pointed out several risks associated with Internet voting systems.

He said there were security risks involved, including the risk of the system being infiltrated by hackers, who would be able to cast votes while taking on the identity of other eligible voters. The potential for rigging the system is huge, and it could result in a controversial election. He said the secrecy of the ballot would also be an issue for the voters using unprotected computers in public spaces. There are also concerns about dangerous virus attacks.

Other potential technical problems include power outages, malfunctions in Internet connectivity as well as the possibility of servers shutting down or crashing. Storing votes cast online, and reliably relaying the results back are also important considerations.

The official said that remote Internet voting presented greater opportunities for fraud, coercion and vote-buying. Fraud occurs when someone votes on behalf of another person without his or her permission, whereas coercion or vote-buying takes place when a voter is pressured to vote for candidates that he or she would not have otherwise.

Both present problems for the integrity of the ballot. There is an additional risk in electronic voting systems if voter notification cards — which contain unique passwords required to cast a ballot — are intercepted. Verifying voter identity is also a significant problem when votes are not cast in person. While digital signatures and passwords can help, the security checks may not be adequate.

He also said a lot of time and money must be invested to ensure that people were aware that they had the option to vote electronically. Voters will also need tutorials on how to use the system and there must be a mechanism to ensure that any technical problems, should they arise, are quickly resolved. Without proper marketing, it is going to be difficult to get the message across.

The official said that electoral administrators would cede control to hired firms. Contracting electronic voting systems to private companies does not bode well for public confidence either, as results of the elections will be clouded by doubts over transparency issues.

Published in Dawn, April 20th, 2018