Flaws found in the Brazilian electronic voting system could open up the possibility of fraud as more than 140 million people go to the polls in the general elections taking place on Sunday.
E-voting was introduced in Brazil in 1996 as a means to ensure secrecy and accuracy of the election process, as well as speed: the system underpinned by about 530,000 voting machines currently in place enables results to be processed within a matter of minutes within closing of the ballots.
However, a public test of the equipment conducted by security and encryption specialists from Unicamp and Universidade de Brasília, two of the top computer science universities in Brazil, suggests that it is possible to easily break the secrecy of the machine and unscramble the order of votes recorded by the device.
"Brazilians unconditionally believe the [security of the] country's electoral authority and processes. The issue is that common citizens actually have no other option because of the lack of independent checks," says Unicamp professor and encryption specialist, Diego Aranha.
Another issue is that the Brazilian machines, which are based on the Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) model, do not produce a physical proof that the vote has been recorded. This means there is a constant danger of large-scale software fraud, as well as other non-technical tampering that could be perpetrated by former or current electoral justice staff and go totally undetected, according to Aranha.
The Brazilian Electoral Tribunal (TSE, in the Portuguese acronym) did not allow new public tests since the faults were discovered by Aranha's team in 2012, when the TSE granted access to more than 10 million lines of code for five hours. Since the system holes were found, the Tribunal said it would not allow further independent tests.
"[The TSE] said that my attitude was disrespectful and a threat to democracy, which is bizarre given that I am a professor at a public university," Aranha says.
"The reality is that there appears to be a conflict of interests, since the government wants to portray the system as bullet-proof and at the same time cover up these vulnerabilities," the academic adds.
In an attempt to introduce more transparency to the voting process in Brazil, Aranha then created a mobile app, Você Fiscal ("You Inspector," in Portuguese), that captures information from images sent by users of printed statements from the voting machines with the total vote counts, which are displayed publicly upon closing of the ballots.
The issue is that common citizens actually have no other option because of the lack of independent checks."
— Diego Aranha
The results produced from the information in the public's photos is then compared with the official results, creating an alternative version of the truth.
"If anything out of order has happened to the voting machine after the closing of the ballots, the system will detect it," the professor points out.
The Você Fiscal app has received over $30,000, more than double the amount of funding it originally sought on Brazilian crowdfunding website Catarse.
The professor's medium to long-term goal is to develop a prototype of a new electronic voting system that offers not only a printed proof that the vote has been processed, but also a more robust fraud detection system as well as auditing.
The Brazilian Electoral Justice system has made efforts to disseminate the electronic voting system, with trade missions to countries including Mozambique, South Africa and Guinea-Bissau, as well as Japan.
According to the government, Peru, Bolivia, Haiti and Panama have requested technical information on the Brazilian electronic voting system, while the UK and US have made recent visits to learn more about the platform.
Professor Aranha, who has presented several times about the Brazilian e-voting system to international audiences, remains skeptical about its possible replication elsewhere.
"The government likes to promote our voting system as one of the most advanced in the world, mainly because we can get the results a lot faster than other countries using more traditional methods. However, speed is desirable, but not the most important feature of an e-voting platform," Aranha points out.
"And the TSE presents the international interest in the system in a way that is convenient to them. But the reality is that many countries have been here, the Brazilian government presents it all through rose-tinted glasses, but how many countries have actually adopted our system?" he adds.
"These countries haven't done so because our system does not have appropriate transparency features that you would expect."
The TSE states that the electronic voting process has "essential mechanisms to ensure voters' safety" in place, such as digital signature.
Security tests in the voting machines were not carried out ahead of this year's elections, but a security working group has been put together by the TSE to map requirements in that area and plan for a roadmap of e-voting security, counting and auditing in Brazil.
However, the group's agenda is moving at a slow pace and has no specific deadline to deliver the recommendations.