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Finland's flawed e-voting scheme - blame the voters?

Ministry of Justice earns itself an Oscar Orwell

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Finland is a small country separated from the rest of Europe by geography and a language of such linguistic intrigue that it is believed to have been used by J R R Tolkien as the basis for High Elvish. But it is also a place where the collision of government and IT has significance for the rest of the world.

The Register last week noted a slight local difficulty when it came to electronic voting. A fully electronic voting system had been piloted in the Finnish municipal elections on 26 October 2008.

Electronic Frontier Finland (EFFi) has been a long-term critic of this pilot program. The Board of EFFi includes experts in the fields of law and technology and claims an active influence on proposals concerning issues such as personal privacy, freedom of speech and user rights in copyright law.

In a report that ought to be compulsory reading for every government minister who has the bright idea of making the electoral process more "efficient", they argued that:

Ensuring the correctness of the results is extremely difficult. The voting results may be affected by multiple components of the e-voting system, and observing the counting process of ballots is impossible in the traditional sense. The results may be affected by a small group of people, either involuntarily through programming errors, or with malicious intent.

The inspections and audits of the system presently only apply to parts of the system, and even in these cases, citizens must trust specialists as major parts of the system software are considered to be trade secrets.

Despite this, the Finnish government carried on regardless, and ended up with egg all over its face.

According to what the Ministry of Justice described as a "usability issue", voting was prematurely aborted for 232 voters (out of 12,000), or about two per cent of the electoral roll. Seats in the municipal assemblies are often determined by margins of only a couple of votes.

When in doubt, blame the electorate. According to the Ministry of Justice, votes had not been entered into the electronic ballot box because the voters had neglected to follow instructions telling them to press a button marked "OK" before withdrawing their voting cards from the machine.

Tuija Brax (green), the justice minister, said she was surprised by the incidents because the system, developed by TietoEnator, had been "tested, tested and tested again".

Critics claim that the issue was exacerbated by Ministry of Justice instructions, which specifically said that in order to cancel the voting process, the user had to click on "cancel" and after that, remove the smart card. Thus, some voters did not realise that their vote had not been registered.

In addition, EFFi report at least one case of touchscreen issues. A voter had repeatedly tried to click on "OK", but either due to system lag or touchscreen sensitivity problems, it took "minutes" to get the button press registered. This type of of problem may have caused voters to believe that the ballot casting process had completed.

EFFi have demanded that the election should be re-run in the affected municipalities - Kauniainen, Karkkila and Vihti - although for this to happen, Finnish election law requires a decision from the Administrative Court.

In the same week, EFFi were handing out this year's Big Brother Awards for the fifth time in a ceremony held at Helsinki Book Fair. The awards, which are also handed out in Germany, went to companies and public servants who had done the most to promote an Orwellian surveillance society in Finland.

In the individual category, Chief Inspector Lars Henriksson from the National Bureau of Investigation swept the board with his speedy censorship of "bad stuff" on the internet with little or no regard for facts and the attitude of "never mind the innocents as long as we grab some guilty ones".

State prosecutor Mika Illman came second for his persistent efforts to limit the freedom of speech in the Internet while "paying scant attention to the principles of democracy".

Despite strong competition from the Ministries for the Interior and Transport and Communications, this year’s overall winner for the communities award went to Ministry of Justice with their aggressive promotion of the "don't worry about your vote, we'll take care of it" electronic voting system and their rapid erosion of privacy and personal information protections.

Last but by no means least, business category threw up a clear winner in the shape of TietoEnator, who built the system responsible for the voting fiasco. They took the prize not only for their deeply-flawed e-voting system but also for their auditing process, which was undermined by auditors from the Ministry of Justice signing NDAs to prevent them from disclosing their findings in public.

Not all was bad news: there were also plenty of nominations for the positive Winston Smith Award. In the end, this went to hacker Harri Hursti for his defence of democracy and free elections by studying and exposing various flaws and problems in electronic voting machines.

Other nominees for this award included anti-internet-censorship activist Matti Nikki, data protection ombudsman Reijo Aarnio and MEP Pia-Noora Kauppi. ®

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