The city government's electronic voting platform reaches 2 million Muscovites. Madison McVeigh/CityLab/AP

Critics say that the city’s Active Citizen app, which allows residents of the Russian capital to vote on municipal projects, is vulnerable to manipulation. The solution? Put it on the blockchain.

It’s both light and shadow that make up the beauty of life, wrote Leo Tolstoy. He was talking about love, not politics. But in Moscow, it’s also light and shadow that, side by side, govern the city. The light: a seemingly transparent and revolutionary form of online citizen participation. The shadow: a dense fog of suspicion surrounding how it works.

In 2014, Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin launched Active Citizen, an e-voting platform designed to allow citizens to directly weigh in on non-political city decisions—things like setting speed limits, plotting bus routes, and naming subway stations. Since then, 2,800 polls have been administered via the app and almost 2 million users across this city of 11 million residents have participated.

Active Citizen bears a family resemblance to other app-based citizen portals that cities are attempting to deploy, like the popular SeeClickFix, which originated in New Haven and is now used by many cities nationwide, and MyLA311, in L.A. They’re all aimed at boosting citizen engagement and government accountability, marketed as tools to connect residents to municipal services and help deliver swift and tangible results. But in Russia, where widespread corruption and a tendency toward authoritarianism have long been features of governance, the stakes of building that trust are higher.

That’s why this month, Moscow officials announced they would be piloting a move of Active Citizen onto “the blockchain.” A blockchain is an online database of sorts: a digitized, decentralized, and typically completely public ledger of transactions and interactions. Often used to track secure financial transactions (it underpins the crypto-currency Bitcoin, for example), the system is hosted by multiple “nodes,” all of which have a copy of the database and the information contained therein.

Lately, blockchain has also become a buzzword meant to convey accountability and security: Its workings are complex enough that the general public generally can’t fully wrap their heads around it, but sexy enough to inspire confidence. Moscow officials are using Active Citizen, with its new blockchain-assured transparency, as proof that the city is indeed heeding the will of the majority. “The city entrusts you to decide,” reads Active Citizen’s motto.

“We are excited to improve [the] credibility and transparency of e-voting system in Moscow by introducing blockchain,” said Artem Ermolaev, the city’s chief information officer, in a statement. “We believe that blockchain will increase trust between the citizens and the government.”

Almost 2 million Moscow citizens have voted in Active Citizen polls since its launch in 2014. (Active Citizen)

Trust can be elusive in Russian public life. Many citizens are deeply skeptical of the processes that shape their cities. Allegations of voter fraud proliferated in the most recent September election, and were laid bare during protests of Russia’s 2011 parliamentary election.

But Andrey Belozerov, advisor to Moscow’s CIO on Strategy and Innovation, insists that Active Citizen is not a mere propaganda tool. “There is not even one decision which was made against the citizens’ opinion,” he told me.

To incentivize widespread participation, Muscovites get points every time they cast a vote, with more points afforded for city-wide votes than district-level ones. Those tickets are then used to pay for parking tickets and metro fares, or to enter contests to win opera tickets. The most active citizens can get special privileges, like breakfasts with Moscow’s mayor, where they discuss city policy over tea.

While millions do participate, the platform has been criticized by residents who charge that, like Moscow’s broader “smart city” efforts (dubbed the “Moscow Experiment” by former culture minister Sergei Kapkov), it avoids tackling the city’s more pressing challenges. Resident Olga Platunova told the Guardian in 2015 that Active Citizen “ignor[es] such important problems as widening of toll parking zones, closure of hospitals, [and] toll city entrance for private transport” in favor of more frivolous ones.

“The authorities have chosen to grant Muscovites a degree of self-expression, but in the safest possible form,” wrote one columnist for the business daily Vedomosti in 2015.

But Active Citizen has led to real changes, Moscow officials point out, such as the construction of bike lanes and the expansion of pedestrian zones. The pedestrian-friendly redevelopment of a busy shopping street (called the “My Street” Moscow redevelopment project) is said to have been entirely poll-driven, according to literature from the IT Department of Moscow. Citizens also participated in the naming (and logo design) of Zaryadye Park, the city’s much-hyped new 32-acre urban park, which was designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

In 2016, Moscow citizens were asked by the independent research organization the Levada Center to share their thoughts on the platform. The results were mixed, but generally positive: 39 percent tended to trust the results of Active Citizen voting and 34 percent trusted them completely; only 23 percent did not trust them at all. Based on a translation from Robert Thomas Argenbright, professor of geography at the University of Utah and an expert on Moscow, more than half found that many issues of concern to them are not included in the referenda, and 48 percent say that often they are not able to vote for what they want because of the way the questions are worded. “Three quarters ultimately trust the results of the vote, although they are not very satisfied with the issues that are put to the vote, and the wording does not fully meet their position,” said Alexei Grazhdankin, deputy director of Levada Center, in a statement.

Alex Gladstein is chief strategy officer at the Human Rights Foundation, which has condemned Russia for cracking down on free speech, and he’s convinced that Active Citizen is offering Muscovites only a mirage of accountability. “They’re not giving up power, and they’re certainly not giving up decision making,” said Gladstein. “In the end, it’s sort of like allowing the people to pretend to make a decision.”

The Moscow city government is unlikely to give more substantial control to residents, according to Gladstein, for fear of undermining President Vladimir Putin. Following the latest Russian elections in September, Putin quietly surpassed Stalin as the longest-serving Russian leader, and his United Russia party won 54 percent of the leadership seats. But Putin also suffered surprising losses in key districts, including his own voting district southwest of the Kremlin. Almost 300 opposition members won new positions in Moscow, giving them majorities in 30 of 125 local councils (even as voter turnout in the city fell below 30 percent.) “You’re seeing in Moscow already less loyalty than the government would probably like to see to begin with,” said Gladstein. “They’re not going to mess around with adding an actually free and transparent way for citizens to vote.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin votes at a polling station during the municipal election in Moscow in September. (Yuri Kadobnov/AP)

Moscow officials acknowledge that there are those who doubt Active Citizen’s credibility. “In every big city and country there is always opposition and people who don’t believe the authority,” said Belozerov, from the CIO’s office. “They think that, dramatically, we’re doing something wrong with the votes.”

That’s where the new blockchain pilot comes in.

Every time a voter chooses an answer in an Active Citizen poll, it will be recorded in the blockchain as a transaction. A group of transactions are stored together in a “block” and sent to the network. Any citizen or city-based organization can become part of the network, acting as a proverbial link in the chain. All they have to do is download Moscow’s unique open-source software.

The publicly-owned nodes have full access to a personal copy of the database even before results are published city-wide, and are able to cross-reference every block with the official counts. This, the city insists, will give citizens incorruptible evidence of how many votes were cast, when, and for what. “[Each node] stores the copy of votes database and will be notified if one block has been changed or deleted,” said a spokesperson for the Moscow Smart City Lab, in an email. “Thus, there is no possibility of rigging the vote.”

And that will translate into greater government accountability, says Belozerov. “If one or two times you’ll do a different decision than the people voted, they’ll never vote again and the project will be shuttered up,” he said.

There is, however, a catch. Public blockchains, like the one which undergirds the digital currency bitcoin, run on “proof of work” systems, storing data on several nodes that all have the same level of authority. But Moscow’s blockchain is private: It runs on a “proof of authority” system, affording certain “authority nodes” administrative power. The beauty of a blockchain is that it’s decentralized. This blockchain isn’t.

The Moscow IT Data Center and the National Research University Higher School of Economics are currently serving as the two main authority nodes, and 60 additional individuals and organizations have signed up to be control nodes thus far. That means there will be at least 62 identical copies of the data floating around. As more individuals join, more duplicates will be made.

Blocks of votes are fully visible by the public, yes—but only after they’re built. And only the authority nodes are able to build them.

Critics like Gladstein say this undermines the whole premise of moving Active Citizen to blockchain. Say there’s a poll that asks citizens whether to rename a road Putin Street or Nemtsov Street. (No such poll has been administered as of yet.) The government would prefer naming the street after Russia’s current ruler, not outspoken critic Boris Nemtsov, who was assassinated in 2015. If the public overwhelmingly chooses to honor the fallen opposition leader, however, the polls should reflect that preference, no matter how controversial.

Gladstein worries that if such an opinion is voiced, however, a private blockchain makes it easy for authority nodes to silence it. “They’ll sit back and watch the elections, and they’ll write these new blocks onto the public ledger as long as they don’t contradict what they want,” he said. “It basically provides an illusion of transparency and modernity to a rigged election system, which is going to continue to remain rigged.”

Moscow Smart City Lab’s spokesperson confirms that their private system gives more power to the authority nodes, but says this is done for technical reasons: They’re forgoing a proof-of-work blockchain because of the massive amount of data they already receive through Active Citizen. During peak load, the platform receives 1,000 votes per minute: too much, too quickly for a proof of work system to handle. Private systems are more stable.

The Lab also points out that the blockchain system is simply a pilot, meant to “test failure reliability, resilience to updates, speed of data processing and correct synchronization of nodes.” When the pilot ends, they have no plans to switch to a proof-of-work system.

“They’re using this pretty buzzword that has arguably libertarian even anarchic tendencies,” said Gladstein. “But in reality, they’ll never have to give anything up they don’t want.”

Long before blockchain entered the conversation, commentators within Moscow highlighted the system’s vulnerability to fraud and manipulation. Even if votes cannot be changed once entered into the system, there “is no guarantee that one of its participants is not a machine or a person who has several accounts,” Nikolai Legkodimov, a partner in the technology company KPMG, told Vedemosti. Just as Russian bots can populate Facebook with ads and register for fake Twitter accounts, they can stuff ballots.

At a rally in May, Muscovites protest the city’s controversial plan to demolish Soviet-era apartments. The poster reads, “We are against demolition!” (Pavel Golovkin/AP)

Smart City officials contend that voter fraud is prevented through their comprehensive registration system. To get an Active Citizen account, voters are required to submit their name, telephone number, and email address. “This was and this is still the basic guarantee that there is no cheating,” said Eldar Tuzmukhametov, head of Moscow’s Smart City Lab. “I don’t think that anybody would buy 100,000 Sim cards just to cheat on voting.”

While votes are anonymous to the public, they’re linked to very personal data on the cloud, and some speculate that such a verification mechanism could double as a surveillance tool. “Active Citizen collects a lot of information from respondents,” said University of Utah expert Argenbright, in an email. “Some think it will be used politically.”

Gladstein also sees self-censorship at work in the platform. “If you know that the government is going to know who you are and what you’re saying, you’re going to be loath to voice your true opinion, given what happens to people who are caught,” he said.

Such fears go hand-in-hand with Russia’s recent history of vote manipulation and suppression. “[In the 2011 parliamentary elections], the types of fraud were stuffed ballot boxes, carousel voting (where people vote in one district and then are bussed into other districts to vote), manipulation with voter registries, ghost voting,” said Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia Division at Human Rights Watch. “The fraud wasn’t especially hidden—it was pretty open.”

Argenbright cites one example of how Active Citizen might be gamed for political ends. This year, an Active Citizen poll was rolled out in Moscow regarding the controversial plan to demolish the Soviet-era apartment blocks known as khrushchevki, which would replace almost 2 million Muscovites’ homes. Only those who lived in the affected buildings were allowed to vote. To confirm the legitimacy of each vote, officials used Active Citizen to check residential data. “This capability in principle could be used to check on all votes, but at the time they were just concerned about opponents,” said Argenbright. “So, again: It comes back to trust.”

The Moscow Times, an independent English-language news outlet, claimed that the demolition plan was buoyed by support from thousands of fake social media accounts, as well as vote-rigging on Active Citizen:

In the rare cases where the app allows Muscovites to vote on genuinely significant issues (such as the planned demolitions of khrushchevki), there is no way to verify the final tally independently.

Unsurprisingly, the app’s numerous critics say it promotes faux democracy used to justify decisions already made at City Hall.

Anxiety about Active Citizen’s potential dark side may be closely linked to the unique political climate in Russia. But it also touches on some of the same issues that face less-controversial citizen engagement portals in the West: What happens when access to (and understanding of) technology becomes a prerequisite to civic participation?

Less-affluent or older residents—those who might not be smartphone-savvy—are most likely to be left out of the process. This cohort might also not be swayed by the credibility assurances of blockchain. “People are usually scared of new things,” said Belozerov. “And blockchain is very new stuff for usual citizens. Of course, it’s necessary to put in some time to show them this transparency.” He says that if people need a tutorial, they’re able to walk into the city centers located in the over 100 Moscow districts and receive training from IT officials.

Indeed, the city boasts an enviable degree of technology adoption: According to Moscow Smart City fact sheets, 72 percent of Moscow citizens use smartphones. (Pew Research says that 77 percent of Americans do.) Wifi access is widespread and affordable: 99 percent of the city is covered with high-speed 4G or broadband, which only costs about 1 percent of the average Moscow citizen’s income. For those who don’t use smartphones, Active Citizen is also available on PCs.

As Moscow’s smart-city campaign advances, however, so does the skepticism. There may be no evidence that officials—or bots—have manipulated Active Citizen voting results, but the platform’s blockchain pilot wouldn’t rule that out. It certainly has not silenced critics who question the promise of radical accountability in Moscow.

“Even if it were completely impossible for City Hall to manipulate the results of votes, most Muscovites would still believe that the mayor’s office was cheating,” said Argenbright. “One could talk about political culture, Russian fatalism…. The thing is, City Hall has demonstrated a propensity for electronic cheating. I wouldn’t trust them either.”

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