How the selfie could make elections safer

Image of a selfie.
Stanislav Krasilnikov | TASS | Getty Images
Image of a selfie.

The selfie, the act of self-portraiture which once threatened to spawn a society of narcissists, could be the key to a more politically engaged electorate, according to one technology company aiming to make the voting system more secure and democratic.

Smartmatic, a world-leading election technology firm, has designed a new app which enables people to vote using a selfie for authentication.

Verifying facial biometric data against government-issued ID documents, the software allows users to register and cast their vote via their mobile phone from any internet-enabled location.

Their vote is then encrypted, much like a private message on WhatsApp, and sent to a central server for counting.

It is Smartmatic's hope that the software will provide a more accessible and secure alternative to postal and booth voting, which he says are at greater risk of hacking.

Already, it is being adopted by one as yet unnamed "developed country", and is due to be rolled out later this year.

"If you look at the environments where there have been allegations of fraud it's all been because of voting interception," says Mike Summers, program manager at Smartmatic.

"Postal voting is very weak – all that's required is a date of birth and a signature, which are easy to fraud."

The selfie system, which is reliant on a two-stage authentication process, however, is more robust and places greater emphasis on confirming the individual's identity, Summers explains.

The app is the latest iteration of the company's election technology. Already it provides internet voting systems to Estonia, where almost one-third of votes are cast online, as well as holding a 15-year touch screen voting contract with Belgium.

It is also working with developing economies such as Sierra Leone to improve the voting system and has coordinated three nationwide elections in the Philippines.

Summers says the system could also provide a solution to voter apathy, which, aside from being a product of growing anti-establishment politics, is also arguably borne out of voters' frustration with traditional, time consuming voting methods.

"Every country has different problems to sort but one common interest - reduced turn out."

High abstention levels were one of the biggest threats to the first round of the French election on Sunday, which eventually generated a voter turnout of approximately 69 percent.

Low voter turnout could also impact the upcoming U.K. election. Smartmatic is due to meet the U.K. government in the coming weeks to discuss its voting system.

"There has been a reluctance to change but I think there is more of an appetite to change the technology now," said Summers, although he said it would not come ahead of this year's vote.

Currently voters in the U.K. can register online but must vote either in person or via postal vote. Last year, the website crashed shortly before the deadline for registration for the U.K. referendum, which threatened to disenfranchise thousands of would-be voters.

"I think this general election is going to be interesting because I think the turnout may be really low because of voter apathy and there will be a realisation that we need to address this.

"Registration is not the end game – voting is."

The U.K. Cabinet Office, which is responsible for elections, said it would not be providing a comment while it is in the pre-election period.