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Blockchain At The Polls?

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Blockchain is being adapted for election usage elsewhere in the world, and could provide the answer to making voting more transparent in Africa.

Kenyan elections are notoriously tricky affairs, usually with disputed results and occasionally with accompanying violence.Other African elections often descend into chaos, as most recently seen in Zimbabwe, but in blockchain, the open, distributed ledger most commonly associated with bitcoin, a solution may have been found.

Earlier this year, presidential elections took place in Sierra Leone. During the vote, Swiss foundation Agora used blockchain to record votes in more than 300 polling centers. As blockchain records transactions in a verifiable and permanent way, it is almost impossible to alter. Therefore, by recording votes on it, elections in theory become more transparent.

This greater transparency could be pivotal to ensuring more effective democracy and calmer elections across Africa, where disputes over votes are common. Kenya looks set to become the next country to test the benefits, with the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) Chairman Wafula Chebukati saying it would utilize blockchain in the next elections.

READ MORE: Building Blockchain Tech With The World As Their Official Address

What impact could it have? Michael Kimani is Chairman of the Blockchain Association of Kenya, and he says that will depend on how it is used.

“From my experience, any deployment of distributed ledger technology could be at one of three points in the electoral system – the main server where voter registration data is held, the national tallying center where all information from across the country is collated, and the tallying centers where group representatives take part in a tallying process,” he says.

Wherever and however the IEBC chooses to employ blockchain, electoral laws would have to be changed to accommodate it. Kimani also says it’s worth keeping in mind that the technology itself is still nascent.

“Beyond cryptocurrency, there hasn’t been any deployment at scale,” he says.
Nevertheless, Kimani believes the IEBC statement is a positive starting point, and that using blockchain could have a significant impact on reducing fraud.

“The concept of a distributed ledger for processes that were previously limited to a single entity would provide significant improvements for the whole process,” he says.

“The concept of a distributed ledger for processes that were previously limited to a single entity would provide significant improvements for the whole process,” he says.

“I am less concerned about the technology itself. It really boils down to man-made specifications that can be implemented. I see potential problems in setting up the necessary governance structures required to make it a reality. There are some things the technology can do, but the rest of it is really up to humans – the laws we set up, the institutions we set up, the audit processes we set up to check on the technology where it fails, and the dispute resolution structures we set up.”

Challenges remain. Yet, blockchain is being adapted for election usage elsewhere in the world. It has been piloted in elections by the state of West Virginia in the United States, while tech firm Kaspersky Lab has built a platform that utilizes it for voting.

Alexey Malanov, a malware expert at Kaspersky Lab, says it is the next logical step on from online voting, which has been used in countries such as Estonia in northern Europe.

“Online voting can be highly beneficial for modern society – it has the potential to make voting easier, cheaper and more convenient. In the modern, efficiency-driven, mobile world, various limitations of offline voting have become apparent: it’s expensive, time-consuming and often inaccessible – or at least challenging for people who aren’t physically present to cast a vote,” he says.

Alexey Malanov

“Online voting can help overcome these challenges, but this brings several uncertainties of its own: how to properly secure the process and how to make sure that the votes aren’t changed or altered by an external or internal party.”

Usage of blockchain technology for general elections, however, is not reasonable at the moment, he says.

“It’s quite a slow technology. A public blockchain processes 10 transactions per second, [which] is not enough to ensure voting for millions of citizens within one day,” Malanov says.

However, Kaspersky Lab is sure blockchain has vast potential yet to be uncovered, with its Business Incubator team exploring opportunities for secure implementation of blockchain for commercial use, and how its transparent, incorruptible and trusted characters could benefit areas beyond cryptocurrencies.

“We saw a great market opportunity and decided to support an experimental and promising project called Polys. It’s a secure online voting system based on blockchain technology and backed by transparent crypto-algorithms,” Malanov says.

“From the user’s perspective, it consists of a web service through which to organize voting and cast a vote, using a mobile phone or tablet. As in any vote, there are several key requirements that would make online voting trusted and secure – transparency of the process, anonymity of a voter and their confidence that their vote won’t be altered in favor of a candidate or option they didn’t choose.”

Blockchain-based programs like Polys provide all this, and it’s surely only a matter of time before we start seeing them used in African elections

– Tom Jackson

Health

Surge Of Smartphone Apps Promise Coronavirus Tracking, But Raise Privacy Concerns

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Topline: A pan-European team of researchers announced Wednesday their plan to release a smartphone app that would notify users if they’ve been exposed to someone infected with coronavirus, the latest example of tech-driven coronavirus solutions that have also raised concerns about user privacy.

  • A European project called Pan-European Privacy Preserving Proximity Tracing is working toward releasing a coronavirus tracing app in the next week that would use anonymous Bluetooth technology to track when a smartphone comes in close range with another, so if a user were to test positive for coronavirus those at risk of infection could be notified.
  • Contact tracing, or determining people who may have been exposed to someone with a virus, is an established aspect of pandemic control and was used effectively to tackle coronavirus in countries like China, Singapore and South Korea in the form of smartphone tracking.
  • University of Oxford researchers and the U.K. government are working on a similar project— but unlike other smartphone tracking systems, the British version in development would be based on voluntary participation and bet on citizens inputting their information out of a sense of civic duty.
  • The U.S. government is in talks with companies like Facebook FB and Google GOOGL and other tech companies about tracking if users are social distancing using large amounts of anonymous, aggregated location data— this information is less precise, and more likely to anticipate outbreaks rather than pinpoint individuals who have been exposed to the virus.
  • 1.5 million Israelis have voluntarily downloaded a mobile app that alerts users if they’ve come into contact with someone with coronavirus— but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has still ordered that potential coronavirus carriers have their phones monitored, a controversial move the government says is necessary, as the 17% of the population using the app is not enough to fight off the pandemic.  
  • Moscow , on a city-wide lockdown since Monday, announced Wednesday that a new phone app that will officials to track the movements of people diagnosed with coronavirus in the capital city would be launched on Thursday, saying the government will lend a smartphone to anyone unable to download the app.

Crucial quote: “We’re exploring ways that aggregated anonymized location information could help in the fight against [coronavirus]. One example could be helping health authorities determine the impact of social distancing, similar to the way we show popular restaurant times and traffic patterns in Google Maps ,” Google spokesman Johnny Luu told the The Washington Post. He made sure to note it “would not involve sharing data about any individual’s location, movement, or contacts.”

Key background: Private and public entities alike are looking for ways to fight off coronavirus as the pandemic continues. On Wednesday, there were more than 900,000 confirmed cases worldwide and nearly 50,000 deaths.Officials told The New York Times NYT that The National Health Service, Britain’s centralized national health system, is trusted by citizens— and paired with the strong data privacy laws in place, said they think people would agree to join the effort to share their private information to help trace infections. However, American tech firms are reported to still be skeptical about sharing substantial data with the U.S. government ever since Edward Snowden revealed the NSA was collecting information from the firms clandestinely. 

Surprising fact: The information tech companies have access to data that sheds light on Americans’ behavior in light of the coronavirus pandemic. According to a Facebook analysis, restaurant visits fell about 80% in Italy and 70% in Spain— while Americans only stopped eating out at a rate of 31%.

Carlie Porterfield, Forbes Staff, Business

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Apple Is Donating 9 Million Masks To Combat The Coronavirus

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Topline: Apple will donate 9 million N95 protective masks to combat the coronavirus, Vice President Mike Pence said on Tuesday, making Apple one of several California tech companies pitching in as hospitals across the country report a shortage of protective gear.

  • Pence thanked Apple for agreeing to donate 9 million N95 respirator masks to healthcare facilities across the country during a press briefing on Tuesday.
  • Pence’s remarks come after Apple CEO Tim Cook tweeted over the weekend the company was “working to help source supplies for healthcare providers fighting COVID-19” and “donating millions of masks for health professionals in the US and Europe,” but did not offer more specifics.
  • N95 respirators are masks that form a protective seal around a wearer’s mouth, filtering  out at least 95% of particles in the air, according to the Centers for Disease Control, which makes them necessary to protect healthcare workers from being exposed to the disease from patients.
  • Facebook has also said it is donating its stockpile of 720,000 masks purchased during the California wildfires last year, which degraded the air quality in the San Francisco Bay Area.
  • Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Forbes asking if all of the donated masks were stockpiled because of the wildfires or if the company got them from somewhere else.

Chief critic: Teddy Schleifer, a reporter at Recode, wrote that health systems shouldn’t rely on the generosity of big tech companies to make up for the failures of the federal government. 

“But there is a risk in relying on corporate philanthropy—rather than the government—in solving this problem. For starters, it depends on the voluntary generosity of these companies to deal with an unprecedented emergency, an altruism that could vanish at any time,” he wrote.

Crucial quote: “And I spoke today, and the president spoke last week, with Tim Cook of Apple. And at this moment in time Apple went to their store houses and is donating 9 million N95 masks to healthcare facilities all across the country and to the national stockpile,” Pence said.

Key background: Apple is one of several California tech companies to give away N95 masks. In addition to Facebook, Salesforce, Tesla and IBM have also announced mask donations.

News peg: Doctors and nurses are sounding the alarm that they don’t have enough masks to protect healthcare workers. Not only does inadequate protective gear put important frontline health workers at risk, public health experts say, any situation endangering medical personnel may only further depletes the U.S. health system which already doesn’t have enough capacity to handle a surge in cases. State officials in New York and Illinois have criticized President Donald Trump for not stepping in to force companies to manufacture masks or allocate masks from private companies to ensure that states don’t outbid each other for the same supplies.

Rachel Sandler, Forbes Staff, Breaking News

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Video Games Are Being Played At Record Levels As The Coronavirus Keeps People Indoors

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Topline: With school closures, mandatory work-from-home policies and lockdowns taking place in the U.S. as a result of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, gaming has seen higher engagement, especially over this past weekend.

  • Steam, the most popular digital PC gaming marketplace, reached new heights Sunday, drawing a record 20,313,451 concurrent users to the 16-year-old service, according to third-party database SteamDB.
  • Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, released by Steam-owner Valve in 2012, seems to be the top beneficiary of the increased engagement, breaking it’s all-time peak on Sunday with 1,023,2290 concurrent players, topping its previous peak last month by a million, which itself beat the record set in April 2016.
  • Like other esports, CS:GO has had to cancel events due to the virus, particularly the Intel Extreme Masters in Katowice earlier this month, though its peak viewership reached over a million, making it one of the most watched tournaments in the esports’ history.
  • Activision Blizzard’s new free-to-play battle royale spinoff Call of Duty: Warzone, launched March 10 on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4, is also likely benefiting, drawing in a staggering 15 million in three days, besting the record 10 million in three days by last year’s battle royale sensation Apex Legends.
  • These new heights follows similar effects of the virus on China and Italy: Telecom Italia’s CEO told Bloomberg it saw a 70% increase in traffic over its landline network, with Fortnite playing a significant part, while Chinese live-streaming service Douyu experienced increased viewership of the country’s most popular games, according to market analyst Niko Partners.
  • While gaming was considered “recession proof” during the 2008 market crash, stocks aren’t immune to the current historic drops: software developers like Activision Blizzard are facing a 9% decrease in price year-to-date, while hardware companies that rely on Chinese manufacturing like Nintendo are seeing bigger drops of 24%.

What To Watch For: If these records keep rising as the closings and lockdowns continue. Arriving this week is Nintendo’s long-awaited Animal Crossing: New Horizons for the Switch console, a relaxing “life-simulator” that’s set to have a big day with many fans not-so-jokingly asking Nintendo to launch early.

Surprising Fact: Plague Inc., a game that tasks players in creating a virus that wipes out humanity, surged in popularity late January, becoming the top-paid game on the Chinese app store at one point, but the game has now been removed in China at the direction of the government.

Further Reading: So You’re Suddenly Working From Home And Want To Try Gaming? Here’s How To Get Started.

Matt Perez, Forbes Staff, Innovation


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