The possible uses of Blockchain technology are numerous, for online voting platforms it offers another way of providing secure online elections. POLYAS relies on the same technology on a smaller scale but is also in the process of researching an entire election system designed around decentralised Blockchain technology. We interviewed Thomas Haines from our research department to learn more about Blockchain and what is behind the hype.

Thomas, as the price of Bitcoin has skyrocketed in the last year, the awareness of Blockchain technology has shifted from a niche to the mainstream. What do you think is behind the hype?

Bitcoin arrived at an interesting time – exactly when the global financial crisis was in full swing. There were many people who were deeply mistrustful of their respective central banks. Bitcoin opened the way for people to trade domestically and internationally, independent from the standard regulatory bodies within states. Bitcoin has recently become a speculative object in and of itself due to the amount of wealth that is invested in it.

How would you describe Blockchain?

There are two main components with Blockchain-technology: the “distributed ledger technology” which is ultimately an account book that is distributed across the platform. The distributed ledger or account book is made up of individual blocks that are joined together as a chain. That’s why it is called “Blockchain”. This chain data is not stored in any central location but is distributed across the entire network.

The idea behind Blockchain is that a number of people come to an agreement on which entries come into the account book and which statements are assigned to those entries. To change the blockchain later, you would have to change all interlinked entries, which in practice would require a tremendous amount of computation and thus can be ruled out. And these two things together – the distributed account book and the agreement on which entries are valid – make-up blockchain technology.

The original blockchain used by Bitcoin was programmed by a person with the Pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto. No one knows who he actually is, so Bitcoin really is decentralised! There are other important Blockchains which were started by companies or foundations. I started mining crypto coins in 2013/14. Back then all you needed was some mining software and your own PC. In recent years, however, mining has become increasingly demanding for PCs. With a normal computer, the power consumption costs are actually higher than what a one will be able to receive. You now need a specialised computer for it to be worth it.

Is the POLYAS Election System comparable to a Blockchain?

Private, local Blockchains – not the decentralised, large Blockchains – have been in use with POLYAS for years. POLYAS has actually been using them from the beginning but when POLYAS started they were not called Blockchains even though it was the same technology. The blockchain that POLYAS uses is far more flexible than the big Blockchains which are basically narrower versions of what we have. The main difference is that our data chains are not stored on decentralised servers.

Could a decentralised Blockchain be of use for Online-Elections?

At the moment, POLYAS offers the feature of “Universal Verifiability”. This feature checks whether ballot papers have been counted correctly and have been added to the election results. However many of our clients do not check the details of their results because they lack the technical know-how. For us, a Blockchain election would offer us the ability to continue doing what we are already doing but it would be far easier for our clients to check their election results.

Learn more about the electoral and cryptography research at POLYAS!

The ballot paper would be encrypted and sent to the Blockchain, counted and then published. We would give voters a link to an external website that would show their address, the transaction relating to their ballot paper and a confirmation that their ballot was counted correctly. That would be a feature of an election of this sort.

What negatives does Blockchain-Technology have?

My work deals with the issues of scalability of Blockchain. In the way that Blockchains currently exist there is no way to achieve the data transfer needed for an online election. It would take so long until the final result would be published. However, there are a few ways to increase the speed, which is exactly what I am researching at the moment.
For some customers, there may be the issue that they do not want their private election results to be published on a decentralised, public Blockchain. This is something that could be overcome by adding another layer of encryption, however.

Because blockchains are so slow, it is difficult to us to determine how long an election will actually last. With our election system, you have the results within a few minutes of it closing. It is also stored locally so we can guarantee the validity of the result. We do not have to rely on Blockchains to conduct secure elections, it would just check the results.

How could the future of this sort of Tech look like?

I think that large, decentralised Blockchains will only play a minor role for online voting until the problem of scalability has been solved. At the moment there is just not the capacity to send millions of ballots through the Blockchain. If this would change, we would, of course, be interested.

I think the next big thing in Blockchain tech is sending contracts through it. At the moment there is always a middleman, a bank or a court that guarantees the validity of a contract. A Blockchain could replace this middleman. There are many people who are looking at this and thinking how to write contracts small enough that the Blockchain would run them. This really is a topic that is gaining popularity.