Tuesday, April 17, 2012

One person, one e-vote

On March 23 and 24, over 220,000 Hong Kong citizens shone a ray of hope on the darkness of an ugly Chief Executive election—a “small-circle election” mired in mud-slinging locally, and accusations of interference from Beijing.

The unofficial poll was made possible by a scheme called the “3.23 Civil Referendum,” organized by the Public Opinion Program (POP) of the University of Hong Kong and open to all adult Hong Kong permanent residents. The implementation was imperfect—Internet problems and long lines at polling stations extended polling until the 24th. But many persistedand cast their “ballot” on the Chief Executive candidates.

(now TV News picture)

The unexpectedly high turnout, and a result of 54.6% of those polled casting a blank ballot (one woman on Hong Kong’s English-language television news said she did so as she felt Hong Kong people had no say in the choice of candidates) sent a clear message. The people of Hong Kong want a one-person, one-vote direct election for the HKSAR’s Chief Executive, and they are unsatisfied with the present “small-circle election.”

The 2012 Chief Executive election season also saw advancement in e-voting experimentation by our civil society, with the Pan-Democrats’ CE Election Primary on January 8, then the 3.23 Civil Referendum. Conducting actual e-voting helped us accumulate valuable experience in terms of technology, operations and emergency response.

Verifying identity

The most important aspect in any voting exercise is the is- sue of ensuring a voter’s unique identity and preventing anyone from voting more than once. In the Pan-Democrats’ primary, a voter needed to physically visit a street polling booth and show his or her permanent resident Hong Kong ID card for registration. Identities were kept in a database to check against any duplicate entries. E-voting in this case allowed the organizers to eliminate paper ballots, reducing the time for vote-counting to literally zero.

Robert Chung, director of POP, wanted to take it one step farther—participants could physically visit a polling station but could also vote online or via smartphone apps (both iOS and Android). Each participant’s identity was verified by requiring him or her to send an SMS message from a unique phone number, a factor designed to dissuade duplicate voters.

When I visited Chung several months ago and shared the technical and operational experience we gained from the Pan-Democrats’ primary, we both acknowledged that this method of identification and authentication was imperfect. But no one could have predicted the strong turnout from the community—85,154 voted on the Web site, 71,183 via the smartphone apps and 66,005 at the polling stations. With such a large turnout, any at- tempt to manipulate the result would have been greatly reduced.

Glitches in the process

Unfortunately, technical problems made the Web site unusable in the early morning of the voting period, turning away many online and smartphone voters. Two factors combined on the technical problems. First, as more and more people voted, the system had to check against a growing database of ID card/ phone numbers, slowing down the database servers. System loading overwhelmed the available resources. Secondly, as reported in Apple Daily, Chung’s system was target of organized attacks.


I got in contact with Chung and his office on the morning of March 23, when the hacking attempts were reported in the media, and went to his office to volunteer technical assistance with experts from our IT Voice team. Five of us stayed in their office until past midnight on the 23rd. Our main tasks: tuning the database and Web servers, re-adjusting the key parameters of the firewall, checking the system log since the e-voting started, searching for and preserving evidence of attacks.

After Chung reported the attacks to the police on the 24th, two local youngsters were swiftly arrested, but we hope that the police’s investigations will continue, as there might be others who initiated more serious attacks from outside of Hong Kong.

The efforts of Chung and his team to create this innovative platform should be commended for their contribution to e-voting technology development, political expression and civil participation. Most of all, the referendum allowed the people to voice their opinions where our constitutional system now fails to do so. We look forward to working with Chung’s team and other local developers to take it one step further.

Printed in Computerworld Hong Kong, April 2012 issue

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