NYU cybersecurity students win top honors in competition to design safe electronic voting systems

As businesses and government entities struggle to fend off cybercrime, there is growing concern about the possibility of cyberattacks disrupting the democratic process and affecting the course of a nation’s history.

In a cybersecurity case study challenge hosted by the Economist, teams from universities around the world were invited to design a system for digital voting that addressed such issues as ensuring privacy and validating contested results. Three students from NYU Law and NYU Tandon School of Engineering won first place with a system that would create a public ledger and enable a voter to check to see if his or her vote was counted.

Demonstrating the importance of grounding technical solutions in an understanding of legal and policy issues, Kevin Kirby ’17 and Tandon teammates Anthony Masi and Fernando Maymi designed Votebook, a secure, scalable system that is consistent with current voter behavior and expectations of privacy. Under the rules of the challenge, Votebook is based on blockchain technology, which creates a distributed, irreversible, incontrovertible public ledger that has been described as double-entry accounting for the digital age. (Blockchain is best known as the apparatus that supports the alternative currency Bitcoin.)

In the winning design, blockchain technology enables voting machines to act autonomously to build a public, distributed ledger of votes. Voters would still register and show up to the polls just as they do in our current system, ensuring minimal disruption of voter expectations. At the conclusion of the election, the ledger of data for each voting machine would be released to the public at large to allow for auditing. Each voter could then check to see his or her vote was counted by entering a set of unique values (voter identification, individual ballot identification) that only the voter would know.

Kirby, Masi, and Maymi, who were awarded $10,000 for taking first place in the challenge, are all NYU ASPIRE scholars, participating in a National Science Foundation-funded program that aims to produce cybersecurity specialists who understand information-security issues from a multidisciplinary perspective. The program is based at the NYU Center for Cybersecurity (CCS), an interdisciplinary research institute dedicated to training the current and future generations of cybersecurity professionals and to shaping the public discourse and policy, legal, and technological landscapes on issues of cybersecurity. CCS is a collaboration among NYU Law, NYU Tandon, and other NYU schools and departments.

“Those designing technical systems that operate core features of our political system will have to do so with the strategic, legal, social, and technical contexts in mind,” said CCS cofounder Zachary Goldman '09. “This is how we teach our students to think about cybersecurity challenges—from a holistic perspective.”

"I'm humbled by the win, and humbled to have made a contribution to the search for ways we can better leverage technology to serve society," said Kirby. "Regardless of whether you think voting fraud is a widespread problem, this election showed that there is a widespread problem with public trust. Blockchain technology presents an opportunity for greater transparency and security in electronic voting, and it can work quite naturally with how we run elections today."

Posted December 14, 2016