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Providing new directions in the field of security, Dr. Feng Hao’s project aims to devise a secure and publicly verifiable system of e-voting - a “self enforcing e-voting system” - which does not rely on vote-tallying authorities. Awarded an ERC Starting grant in 2013, Dr. Hao is based at Newcastle University (UK).

For the past 20 years, researchers have been developing verifiable e-voting systems, but few of the resulting systems have been used in real-world elections. The e-voting systems that have been used in large democracies such as India, Brazil and the US are unverifiable; and there have been security-related concerns about vote-tampering. A major obstacle for deploying verifiable e-voting technologies is their reliance on “trusted authorities” - such as government-appointed election officers - to tally votes. Such reliance makes the electoral process fragile, as it is dependent on a few selected people. Moreover, these people need to have expertise in computer science and cryptography. It is precisely the need for such reliance on “trusted authorities” that Dr. Hao challenges in his research. In his words: “We aim to provide a means whereby voters can independently verify that their votes are accurately captured and tallied by the system; ensuring that the integrity of their vote is maintained. In the process, we eliminate reliance on authorities who tally the cast votes, so the election is self-tallying.”

What makes Dr. Hao’s research truly innovative is that it proposes an “authority-free” verifiable e-voting design; whereby votes will be securely tallied in a publicly-verifiable manner without involvement of trusted authorities. He thereby aspires to devise an e-voting technology, which is more secure, usable and dependable; applicable to local, regional or national elections alike. Furthermore, the system that he proposes will detect and provide clear evidence of electoral fraud, thereby acting as a strong deterrent to vote-tampering. He comments: “This substantial ERC funding will allow me to recruit and support a cross-disciplinary team; consisting of research associates with strong academic backgrounds in security, usability and dependability respectively.” Dr. Hao aims to advance his project by conducting trial elections and evaluations within Newcastle University and the local City Council. In addition to the UK, he has established contact with election think-tanks in the US and in Europe for conducting empirical studies.

Along with two research students, he has been developing a prototype of the self-enforcing e-voting system based on using smart phones as voting clients, and has applied it to build a verifiable classroom e-voting application. Students have responded well to it, and he aspires to extend this approach to other universities. He comments: “The motivation for my work is based on two observations - first, there is no verification procedure for existing classroom e-voting products and second, existing products all depend on using custom-built voting devices but there are problems concerning maintenance and convenience in using those devices. Verifiable classroom voting is just a start. In the future, we will readily be able to extend our voting system to larger-scale applications such as the campus, local council or national elections.” Challenges driving his research are related to the realisation of self-tallying for complex voting schemes – particularly those involving ranking systems, vote-transferability, and accessibility for voters with special needs such as disabled and elderly persons. With his team, he aims to devise new algorithms to address such complexities.

Dr. Hao foresees several good outcomes of his research. Concretely, he will create freely available open-source software tools for voting and auditing. Extensive industrial experience has provided Dr. Hao with exposure to real-life security problems as well as an understanding of the needs of the market. For him: “E-voting is not just a research topic, but has a major commercial potential. With the help of my ERC grant - when the research results are mature enough - we will market our e-voting application to companies and industries.” Dr. Hao stated: “I was motivated to apply for ERC funding because it allows me to conduct cutting-edge research with practical impacts. Being prestigious and highly competitive, the ERC grant has instantly jump-started my academic career. This is great for someone like me, who has spent several years in industry before returning to academia. My research-process has been speeded up through secure and substantial funding.”

Being Chinese by origin, he comments on the significance of the ERC in China:“The generous ERC funding allows scientists from around the world to work with specialised teams on interesting and challenging problems. Chinese researchers stand to benefit from an excellent European research environment, opportunities for collaboration with leading scientists, as well as the free exchange of ideas in top tier academic conferences in Europe. Especially appealing to Chinese scientists is the dynamic academic culture in Europe, which fosters research through its diversity.”

Dr. Hao received his Master’s degree in Engineering at Nanyang Technological University (Singapore). He then completed his PhD at the Computer Laboratory in Cambridge University (UK). At present, he is a lecturer in Newcastle University’s School of Computing Science.