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Experts – on the achilles’ heel of digitalized elections and polls

The advance of information technologies has made digitalization a reality that has deeply rooted in our daily lives. And electoral processes are no exception. Even IT platforms have already been announced, which will supposedly provide remote monitoring of elections and alternative counting of votes. Nikolay Sukhotsky and Svetlana Aleinikova, discuss the risks and challenges of such processes, and the purposes for which they can be used.

Nothing is kept secret

— Article 68 of the Constitution of Belarus states that "Voting at the elections shall be done by secret ballot: expression of the will of voters during voting shall not be controlled". Is digitalization capable of meeting this requirement?

N. Sukhotsky: The reliability of provided information where the voter identification tool has to be used is the key challenge. To address this challenge, a citizen is offered to take a photograph of the completed voting paper and a passport, if desired, and send it to Viber and Telegram chat bots for further processing on one of the platforms. At first glance, this is logical and convenient. However, this solution involves collecting passport data or a telephone number, implying risks for the voters.

First, there is a risk of their data being used for fraudulent purposes. Secondly, platform administrators can use the information they receive to make money by selling the "electoral" database to interested parties. Thirdly, it cannot be ruled out that the voter list will go public against the wishes of the voters themselves. On the one hand, this will violate the secrecy of voting, and on the other hand, a voter can become a 'hostage of his or her vote' for life.

"In digitally advanced countries, it took years to develop and implement digital voting systems. The basic requirement was that EU SIM cards had crypto modules. The Estonia's example showed that this was not enough, and block chain had to be used as well. But in fact what was proposed is a conventional system with a central server and an administrator, which is fundamentally contradictory to the block chain technology". NIKOLAY SUKHOTSKY

S. Aleinikova: Online polls are now being promoted, especially in Telegram channels, which are appealing for their anonymity and the possibility of clandestine security. At first glance, online polls involving tens of thousands of subscribers significantly exceed the capabilities of sociologists with their typical nationwide sampling of 1600-2000 respondents.
However, the ABC's of sociology is that the large-scale involvement in the poll is not mandatory and does not guarantee its reliability. Similarly, a poll conducted in a small or homogeneous group (e.g. among friends and acquaintances) cannot be applied to the rest of society.

An online poll provides a snapshot of the opinions of an audience of only one resource, without taking into account its socio-demographic and other characteristics essential for a sociological research.

"The 'War of Rankings and Sociologies' aims to create distorted views of public opinion, disorient audiences and discredit any representative sociological data. The results of exit polls and post-election surveys, which have been and will be conducted by accredited sociological organizations, also become targets". SVETLANA ALEINIKOVA

Fridges and microwaves can be voters

— In the meantime, the media space is flooded with numerous faked rankings. Can we be sure that such saturnalia will not happen during the electronic voting as well?

S. Aleinikova: Such "rankings" are based not only on various surveys and "insights", but also on analysis of search queries and IP addresses of users, by which foreign "sociologists" are able to determine not only political preferences, but even the gender and income level of their holders. Some "services" manage to measure the "real ranking of candidates" in such a way that they exclude the President, since "there is no point in learning about him, the reason is the condition of being absolutely known". The argument is "airtight", but in this case such "surveys" should be tagged as "humor". I would also include information about "surveys" under the auspices of serious foreign organizations, such as the Gallup sociological service. There are situations when one website provides some figures, while the second one gives a different result, after which the first source opposes the second, and in the end it turns out that there was no survey at all.

N. Sukhotsky: The electoral platforms offered to Belarusians also present technological traps that are obvious to the experts. Firstly, you can register any device in a mobile network - not even a person - but, for example, a GPS navigator, a security alarm system, a smart TV or a fridge or even a backup 3G modem in your office. In short, everything that has a radio module and a Belarusian SIM card. Secondly, to prove your voting, you can upload a photo of the voting paper. But it is not clear how one voting paper differs from another and what prevents you from taking 20 photos of the same voting paper from different angles or even printing at home one hundred copies of the document that looks like a voting paper and upload them in poor quality to one hundred accounts.

A service for insiders

— Let us assume that a universal and flawless electronic voting and election monitoring service has been created. Will this solve all problems?

N. Sukhotsky: I am not sure. A person who plans to vote for the sitting president will most likely ignore this service. Why would they participate in games of political opponents? Therefore, the results of the alternative vote counting are known in advance. They will show the electoral situation among the users of this service, which can be presented as a situation in the entire society. This means we have a tool to create a fake reality at its finest.

S. Aleinikova: By the way, the accreditation requirement for sociologists is irritating to some people, the main argument being: "Why is it allowed for them and not for others?". Meanwhile, accreditation is a guarantee that the sociological service has professional sociologists, usually with a degree, a trained network of interviewers and knowledge of rules and methods of conducting opinion polls.