Even as Russia stands accused of meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, its national capital is taking a leadership role in making democracy more transparent.
Using an existing program called Active Citizen, the city of Moscow has been allowing residents to cast votes for measures ranging from the name of their new metro train to the color of the seats in a new sports arena. But in an effort to soothe people's concerns over whether to trust the city in its vote counting, it's added a private version of the ethereum blockchain to that project's architecture.
"Of course, sometimes we hear that not all the votes are trusted," said Andrey Belozerov, the strategy and innovations advisor to the city's CIO. "So, we decided to use a blockchain for the Active Citizen project, as a platform of electronic trust."
The ethereum-based platform, which allows anyone to audit the open-source results, has been downloaded by more than 100 node operators since its December launch.
In this way, the city hopes to gain the trust of the citizens of Moscow, but bigger than that, win the trust of state governments around the world.
While a so-called "blockchain cold war" in which nations use the technology to undermine one another's financial influence is worrying to some, Belozerov hopes blockchain tests like Active Citizen could result in an increased sense of trust between nations.
In an interview with CoinDesk, Belozerov said:
"The idea is to put all the votes to the blockchain to make it open so everybody can connect to our blockchain network, and to check the voting process, and so-on and so-forth."
Adoption and scale
Originally launched in 2014 as a way for Moscow's elected officials to give its citizens a say in the make-up of their city, the Active Citizen program has registered 2 million users.
In total, 3,450 polls have been conducted using the centralized Oracle database that the platform was built on initially, and as of last week, 92 million votes had been cast, with only the most recent fraction of those also logged on the new blockchain platform.
One such vote logged on the ethereum platform was a measure that allowed citizens to vote whether they'd opt-in to be temporarily relocated while the building they live in now was demolished and replaced by a newer, nicer building.
And while Belozerov said there is "huge interest from the market," he acknowledges that there are still hurdles to work out.
For one, aligning with concerns in the public blockchain space, Belozerov wonders how well the blockchain platform will scale.
So far, the platform has only ever reached a peak transaction volume of about 1,000 transactions per minute. But if the Active Citizen project attracted more of the Moscow's 12 million citizens, it remains unclear whether the blockchain be able to handle the volume.
According to Belozerov, increased adoption of the platform will make the perfect stress-test.
"In the end of the first quarter, we will determine if it works properly with our loads," he said. "Then we can switch off the previous model of Active Citizen and go natively to a blockchain."
Still, with the broader goal in mind, interest from Moscow citizens doesn't necessarily equate to interest from governments beyond the city limits.
In an effort to prove that the system is trustworthy, the City of Moscow commissioned "Big Four" accounting firm PwC to conduct an independent audit of the code.
"The company studied the possibility of manipulating the outcome of polls by both internal employees and external attacks," said Belozerov, and found that there are not reasons for concern in polls that have more than 300,000 votes.
According to the Mayor of Moscow's official website, the most popular polls are getting between 137,000 and 220,000 participants currently.
In addition, PwC also simulated external cyberattacks and was unable to replace the votes of an electronic referendum or gain unauthorized access to the results, Belozerov said. PwC was not able to confirm the results, citing a policy not to comment on work with customers.
And not only that, but Belozerov believes there's momentum from government entities to adopt blockchain technology for not only enhanced transparency, but also other efficiencies.
Case in point, he pointed to a recent test by Russia's Ministry of Economic Development and the Federal Service for State Registration to see how blockchain could give owners a faster and cheaper way to prove they own their belongings. And beyond that, he mentioned Dubai's work to move all its government records to a blockchain by 2025.
Yet, Belozerov acknowledges that even more so than the scaling challenges, is what he believes is an ingrained resistance from government leaders that could prove the largest obstacle to adoption.
"Of course, the hardest question is to change their opinion, or to change their minds with this approach," he said, but remaining optimistic, concluded:
"I see a very strong trend for moving of different countries and different companies to this technology."
Red Square image via Shutterstock