USPS secretly tested mobile voting system: report
The U.S. Postal Service worked on a secret project to test a blockchain-based mobile phone voting system ahead of the 2020 elections before ultimately abandoning the project, according to The Washington Post.
The effort was apparently conducted without any involvement from agencies focused on election security. According to the Post, the secrecy of the project alarmed officials, who worried that news of it could spark conspiracies and stoke distrust in the U.S. election system.
Matt Masterson, former senior adviser for the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) who served in the federal government when the mobile voting project was being pursued, said he was never aware of the Postal Service’s activities when it came to the program.
“If you’re doing anything in the election space, transparency should be priority number one. There should be no guessing game around this,” Masterson told the newspaper.
The Postal Service had been awarded a patent for the concept in August 2020. The application for the patent was filed in February 2019, during the administration of former Postmaster General Megan Brennan, the Post noted.
In a statement provided to The Hill, Postal Service spokesperson David Partenheimer said the project was abandoned in 2019 without ever being deployed, calling it “exploratory in nature.”
“The Postal Service discontinued its exploration of blockchain voting technology in October 2019,” said Partenheimer.
This system would have allowed individuals to cast their votes with an online mobile app. As the Post reported, the app was similar to an online shopping cart or survey. The votes were recorded in multiple different locations at the same time to provide accuracy, similar to how bitcoin transactions are made.
However, when cybersecurity researchers at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs conducted a test of the system, it was discovered that it was vulnerable to hacking attempts in multiple areas.
“Based on our research, this actually causes more problems than it solves,” Shawn Emery, one of researchers, told the Post.
Partenheimer told The Hill, “The Postal Service has a long and proud history of innovation and is constantly exploring ways to use the latest technology to drive the best value and experience for our customers.
“Blockchain technology’s potential to strengthen digital transaction security is a concept we have explored on our journey to better meet our customers’ current and future needs, and to bridge the gap between the physical and digital worlds.”
He added that there are currently no plans to advance such a system.
As the Post noted, an assessment released by federal agencies like CISA and the FBI determined that mobile voting systems had risks to “confidentiality, integrity, and availability of voted ballots.”
The Postal Service faced intense scrutiny during the 2020 elections as more people submitted their ballots through the mail amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Former President Trump also regularly asserted widespread fraud with mail-in voting, and GOP lawmakers across the country cracked down on the practice, though experts disputed the claims.
According to the Pew Research Center, 46 percent of voters said they used absentee or mail-in ballots in the 2020 elections.
Mobile voting apps have been used in U.S. elections in the past, including in West Virginia in 2018. In February 2020, researchers at MIT released the results of a security analysis of the West Virginia app, determining that there were multiple opportunities for hackers to affect the votes.
The MIT analysis found that there were parts of the app that gave hackers the ability to alter, stop or expose how an individual voted. The app’s use of third-party vendors for voter identification also presented potential privacy issues.
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