Most tech companies are already heavily involved in the way politics and therefore elections are shaped in the US, either through censorship or otherwise, and earlier this year Big Tech dinosaur Microsoft started looking for a way to participate as well.
Even though it’s not known for producing reliable software, especially security-wise, Microsoft was out to fix precisely that aspect of the voting process by providing software for voting machines called ElectionGuard.
Ahead of this year’s US election, voter machines were presented in reports as particularly prone to tampering, and although the level of this was said to be low, it is apparently something easy to do.
What ElectionGuard proposes to do is replace paper ballots with digital tablets, from which voting information is saved to a memory card, that then goes to a card reader from where it’s saved to a computer – and then printed as paper ballots ready for ballot boxes. The system was not ready for this year’s election, but Microsoft hopes it gets deployed by 2024.
A “new form” of encryption that Microsoft calls “homomorphic” is used to provide privacy of the vote. Voters can use a tracking code to ensure that their vote was not changed – but the system prevents them from showing anyone how they actually voted. Since this is Microsoft software, not even the company expects it to be resistant to hacking efforts, however, ElectionGuard guard is said to “immediately show” it had been the target of attackers.
(This seems to rely on enough voters deciding to check if their vote had been tampered with – and they’d have to do it using “most likely on public websites set up by election boards or local authorities”)
ElectionGuard is a part of Microsoft banding up with a number of governments, NGOs, and others who work on a project called Defending Democracy program, of which ElectionGuard is a part.
The program is open-source and free of charge, Microsoft said, stressing the importance of open source software by noting, “Nobody has to just take Microsoft’s word for it – or anyone else’s for that matter.” (Take note, Windows users.)
But it’s not all roses: the voting machines industry in the US is said to be worth $300 million and dominated by one player, ES&S, who likes to take legal action to beat down competitors. Microsoft has reportedly discussed installing ElectionGuard in ES&S machines.