Note: This story was posted in July of 2013. It does NOT advocate for the use of Anoto digital pens in elections. After 7 years of trying to get Anoto to take voting seriously, it appears it has finally reached their dense heads. However, there are serious security flaws with this technology that they have shown absolutely no interest in addressing. Please do not consider Anoto based digital pens for voting without reaching out to us--or you will await swift and certain failure.
The strange case of Anoto and Voting
It’s unclear who first came up with the idea of using Anoto digital pens for voting. Probably any number of people kicked the idea around. The first use of pens in an election happened in Hamburg in 2005 (with only 667 voters) and a small town in Scotland used them in 2006. The city of Hamburg was to use them again in 2008, but decided against using digital pens due to the criticism of the Chaos Computer Club and others.
Penvote came upon digital pens in 2007 and immediately saw what could be an opportunity to create a voting system based on digital pens.
Without going into the entire history of Penvote with our fits and starts, it goes without saying that we are and have been the only firm in the world entirely dedicated to the use of digital pen technology in the election industry (and for more than just voting).
We have experienced what many of you have also reported. That is, that dealing with Anoto is challenging. Much of it is cultural; we in the US find the Swedes take a lot of time off, don’t respond timely to requests for service or information and are otherwise disengaged. Many of you have told us of similar experiences. Over the years we have been a vocal critic of Anoto. We have, for example, argued till we’re blue in the face that the cost of the pens was holding back acceptance of the pens in the general marketplace. That still remains true today.
Back in 2008 we had an inquiry from a person in Ecuador that felt that pens could be used in their upcoming election. We send them a pen and ballots and access to view the results. Our system was even shown on the news in Ecuador. When this happened we found we were talking to the US Anoto office (in Boston) on a regular basis. Then something curious happened; our point of contact simply cut off all communication with us. We couldn’t get him to answer emails, or return phone calls. Finally we had to reach out to Anoto in Sweden to find out if he was still with the company-which he was.
All of that had us scratching our heads and wondering what had happened. At the time if the Ecuador election would have gone through it would have easily consumed the world’s supply of digital pens. Clearly Anoto in Sweden was taking it seriously as many of you recall an email suggesting that supplies of pens could be tight over the next few months.
Our suspicion was, and remains to this day, that Anoto was trying to “back door” us. That is, they were going to go after the business themselves. This isn’t something new and at present many of you are faced with similar situations. You develop a vertical market application and if you have some success or the potential of success, Anoto will swoop down and claim that market segment for themselves or some new “exclusive” partner. It’s bad business, but they have done it.
So, things remained somewhat quiet as we were working on various technical issues behind the scenes. Then in 2011 (I believe) we were looking at the presentation Powerpoints from XMS Penvision’s annual conference. We generally like the folks at XMS Penvision and they really have done a stellar job of creating a very nice and flexible horizontal pen platform. When we looked at those presentations we noticed one by someone from Anoto. In that presentation it mentioned that Anoto was pursuing three main vertical markets, one of which was voting. This simply had us stunned as we had not heard from anyone at Anoto in years. We again reached out to the Boston office and the exchange borders on the absurd (if you want to see the emails, drop me a note and I’ll send them to you).
We told them we had seen the XMS presentation in Sweden and knew they were claiming that voting was one of their top three vertical concerns. We, naturally, offered our assistance. After all, if you are serious about voting, would it not make sense to talk to the firm that has been working on it exclusively for several years?
On July 25th of 2011 we had a conference call with Jon Schwartz and Pietro Parravicini where we talked about Anoto’s new emphasis on voting systems. We followed up with an email saying that it might be wise to hire us to help Anoto better understand the election industry. We also suggested we could help them know the players in the industry and give them the layout of the market. We felt this was in order because in our call Anoto suggested they might try to sell the system by simply making cold calls—we remarked this was a waste of time as we could provide them with contacts, introductions, etc.
Anoto’s response was to thank us and suggest that if they decided to go after voting in a serious way that they would reach back out to us. We told them that it was our understanding that the XMS presentation made clear that Anoto WAS devoting time to the election market.
Finally, we decided we would offer them a free one day presentation on elections (at least in the US market) along with a tour of a major election office so they could better understand the market. The response that we got (and I can provide you with the emails) was that they (Jon Schwartz) were busy with other non-election work and that they would decline our offer. It was clear to us at this point that they simply were not taking it seriously or were pursuing some other relationship with another vendor.
The final oddity comes from an email exchange (write me and I’ll send you the email scans) with the new CEO of Anoto, Stein Revelsby. Based on a Linkedin Group conversation he sent a note to me on Feb. 9th, 2012. The title of the conversation was “Anoto: partner or competitor”. Stein wrote that he was enjoying reading my comments that he would be “happy to meet with us in the near future to discuss.” I wrote him back with my contact information and told him we’d be glad to meet.
On Feb. 9th, 2012 he remarked that he had a planned trip to Ohio (assuming he was visiting Myriam Capital and/or Expedata) and that as those dates firmed up he would get back to us to plan a visit to see us (since we are only 1 hour away). We offered to assist with travel plans as well as hotels, etc. His last response was that “He would get back to us when he scheduled his trip.” THAT WAS THE LAST WE EVER HEARD FROM HIM. There was no meeting, no further emails and no further contact from anyone ever at ANOTO. They simply went off the radar.
So what have we determined? It appears that Anoto has partnered with a voting firm called Smartmatic.
Now Smartmatic is a troubled company with a troubling history—especially here in the US. They are owned by Venezuelans and their history is well known. Now on the one hand at least Anoto partnered with someone that actually knows the election business—so that’s a good sign. At least they didn’t partner with some completely out of touch company. However, they also partnered with a firm that has a less than stellar reputation and bit of web searching will reveal that truth.
All we can do is say that we are glad to see someone else in the industry taking on the Anoto platform.
So we are announcing the Smartmatic / Anoto voting exclusive partnership here.
But there are a few things to know for those of you that are still “partnering” with Anoto:
On a final note, or warning: Smartmatic knows how rough this business can be. Anoto doesn’t yet know it. Since we have worked with digital pen and election technology longer and harder than any other firm in the world, we have learned a thing or two about how it all works.
In our work we have also determined there are a few security flaws/problems that Anoto has never addressed (as far as we know). Some of them may in fact be so detrimental that the whole use of Anoto pens in elections might be doomed. Now had Anoto communicated with us, we might have been able to share these issues with them, and perhaps resolved them. As such they remain in our domain only.
However, sometime later this year, and at an appropriate time, we will reveal these security issues to the large and active anti-electronic voting organizations (people like Bev Harris and Black Box Voting). These organizations are always interested in learning about flaws and security holes in various electronic voting systems. Welcome to the rough and tumble world of elections Anoto!