The National Electoral Commission (NEC) of Sierra Leone has denied blockchain technology or the Swiss company Agora played any official role in its recent elections, despite media claims of a “blockchain election”. The incident is a reminder that the public (and especially media and investors) should approach any claim regarding blockchain technology’s real-world applications skeptically at this point. Why? Read on, we’ll explain.
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TechCrunch reported the NEC was vehemently denying any role by Agora or blockchain technology, in a follow-up to its original story. The NEC also tweeted its announcement, saying the Commission used an existing MS SQL database to tally official results.
It’s likely any suggestion of foreigners deploying new technology that replaced NEC’s employees, or its database developers, ruffled a few feathers at the organization.
— The Electoral Commission of Sierra Leone (@NECsalone) March 19, 2018
We Were Officially-Recognized Observers, Says Agora
In response to Bitsonline‘s and other enquiries, Agora posted a clarification on Medium. The company, as it claimed in its original press release on the topic, attended Sierra Leone’s March 7th election as an officially-accredited observer.
It also stressed that Agora’s election results were not official NEC election results, and were in fact posted five days before the NEC’s manual count of paper ballots.
The Sierra Leone election was merely a demonstration of its blockchain voting concept, it said. However the demonstration did involve an actual count of actual ballots, not alternative measures or exit-polling. The NEC allowed official observers, including Agora, to view and count the paper ballots — Agora recorded each individual ballot, and any results that different from the subsequent official count were the result of the NEC declaring some ballots invalid at a later point.
While Agora’s press release is factually correct, the wording seems to suggest in places that its technology played a larger part. For example, it leads with:
Sierra Leone’s 2018 presidential elections, which took place on March 7th, represents the first time in history that blockchain technology has been used in a national government election.
Then later, it added:
The National Electoral Commission’s decision to work with Agora was also driven by speed, as logistics around transferring and counting ballots have proven cumbersome, expensive and slow in previous elections.
With statements like those, it’s easy to see how quick-reading media and their readers could erroneously assume that Agora was working in an official capacity to deliver the results.
What the Media Said
“Sierra Leone just ran the first blockchain-based election”, said TechCrunch‘s March 16th headline. Agora did not correct or deny this wording, tweeting the article and proclaiming “Read more about our blockchain election in Sierra Leone!” in response.
Bitsonline‘s own version, “You Can Now Audit Sierra Leone’s Blockchain Election Results for Yourself”, was slightly more muted. For the record, whatever the claims made by other media outlets, that article noted the trial involved a simple recording of election results in Sierra Leone’s West Districts on Agora’s blockchain.
In fact, Agora’s own words on March 9th should have been a hint. It “deliver(ed) results 2 hours before the official count”. This obviously would have been impossible if Agora were playing any part in delivering the official results.
The Problem With Blockchains, Election Ballots, and Non-Digital Things
That Sierra Leone, a country that scored only 4/10 on The Economist‘s healthy democracy scale, would jump at the chance to deploy experimental blockchain tech in the name of transparency was also an eyebrow-raiser. Even if the claim were true, official and unexaggerated, we’d need to see details of how blockchain was used and exactly how it could be verified. Sierra Leone does not have electronic voting machines, meaning at best there’d be a disconnect between the actual votes and the blockchain record.
If the advantage of blockchain is that it’s cryptographically secured and verifiable by anyone, then recording paper votes manually on a blockchain is pretty meaningless. See also any blockchain-digitized records of real world objects, like land titles and shipped goods. These systems are still mostly theoretical.
Twitter accounts reportedly from Sierra Leone began disputing Agora’s claims almost immediately after the election announcements appeared:
This is fake news by Agora for their profit. As a concerned citizen of Sierra Leone, I am worried about the fake news. Blockchain was not used by @NECsalone. Your experiment with 250 polling stations was never used by NEC or any election body. Stop spreading the FAKE News
— OpenElections SL (@OpenElectionssl) March 16, 2018
Agora also noted that the Sierra Leone Open Election Data Platform, the organization that operates the @OpenElections SL Twitter account above, has a sponsorship relationship with a company called LAM-TECH, an election data company and potentially a competitor to Agora.
So Who’s Telling the Truth?
In conclusion, neither Agora nor the NEC have made any false claims. However Agora could possibly be accused of exaggerating its role with ambiguous statements, or failure to clarify more precisely its part once the media stories appeared.
The Sierra Leone NEC, for its part, is determined to cover its own interests by denying Agora played any part in tallying the official results — which Agora never claimed to have done anyway.
When approaching stories of experimental technology deployments like this, it’s always important to look at the fine print and question for further details if those provided don’t tell the whole story. Often that’s where the truth lies.
If you’re thinking of investing in an ICO, crypto-asset or blockchain-related company — as with any technology — you’ll need to perform your own due diligence before handing over any money. Read any press release, white paper, media article or even analyst report, with a critical mind.
Do you think Agora’s initial comments were fair? Let us know in the comments.
Images via Agora, Sierra Leone NEC