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Cyberattacks make online voting too risky, warns ex-spy chief

The former head of MI6 has warned against online voting systems because of their vulnerability to cyberattack by foreign states.

A commission headed by John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, recommended last year that British voters should have the option to vote online in the 2020 general election.

However, Sir John Sawers said that casting a ballot with pencil and paper was “actually much more secure”.

“The more things that go online, the more susceptible you are to cyber- attacks,” he added.

The warning followed an outcry in the United States over alleged Russian digital meddling in the US presidential election, including the hacking of the Democratic Party’s computers to help scupper Hillary Clinton’s attempt to become president. President Obama expelled 35 suspected Russian spies and imposed sanctions on two Russian intelligence agencies in retaliation for the alleged attack.

Weighing in to the issue of voter manipulation in the internet age, Sir John told a BBC Radio 4 documentary The New World: Axis of Power, broadcast yesterday, that it was important to have robust systems.

“The only trouble is, the younger generation of people expect to be able to do things remotely and through electronic devices,” he said. “Bizarrely the stubby pencil and piece of paper that you put your cross on in the ballot box is actually much more secure than anything which is electronic.”

Mr Bercow’s Commission on Digital Democracy said it would become increasingly difficult to persuade younger voters to vote using traditional methods. “It is only a matter of time before online voting is a reality, but first the concerns about security must be overcome,” it said in a report.

The Electoral Commission is considering a range of options to improve and modernise the act of voting. This includes exploring the possibility of e-voting — an option that Jenny Watson, chairwoman of the Electoral Commission, described as “radical”.

Areeq Chowdhury, chief executive of WebRoots Democracy, which campaigns for electronic voting, said: “There is no evidence to show that online voting is more susceptible to fraud than the paper alternative.”

Sir John told The New World: “One of the big problems we face with cyber is that it hasn’t really been discussed internationally about what is an acceptable use of cyberpowers and where are the red lines and what happens when those red lines are crossed.

“We’re at a very early stage. It’s a bit like with nuclear weapons back in the 1950s. We’ve got the capabilities, but there are no rules lined up as to how they should be used.”