For six years, Estonians haven’t had to set foot in a polling place or wait in line to cast their votes for President — instead, they can do it online. And on Thursday, the country’s Electronic Voting Committee released the entire source code of its voting server software on open-source platform GitHub — a move that not only gives Estonians a glimpse into the workings of their e-voting system, but that also gives them a chance to help toughen it up from a security perspective.
The Estonian e-voting process is based on the country’s identity card, which is mandatory and issued when a citizen is 15 years old. The card has a built-in electronic authentication system that allows secure voting online from any computer, and each citizen is allowed to submit and change their vote until Election Day. At the last Parliamentary Election in 2011, one in four people chose to cast their ballot via e-vote. While there isn’t enough data to conclude whether e-voting has raised voter turnout overall in the country, the country’s electoral committee views the process as successful.
The country’s voting source code has always been available for viewing, but old rules required people to sign a confidentiality agreement before getting their hands on it. Completely open-sourcing the code may help reassure citizens that the system is on the level, making them more likely to use it.
There’s also a big security benefit — it allows programmers to find bugs in the program and report them back to the country’s officials. This is a big deal for Estonia, which experienced controversy after its last election, when a university student theorized that a flaw in the voting system could have been exploited to essentially block votes. While an investigation concluded that there was no evidence of manipulation, opening up the code allows programmers to test their security-breaking theories and strengthen the system in the long run.
Of course, this also gives an opportunity for countries to learn from Estonia’s example. While the scalability of a voting system that has just 1 million people eligible remains to be seen, hackers and programmers can tinker with the code to start understanding how it all works. Because the code is open source, anyone can download and explore it — it’s a great opportunity to shed light on the concept as a whole and to spark the discussion about viable and secure e-voting all over the world.