Sir John Sawers, former chief of the British Secret Intelligence Service, better known as MI6, has said that any move towards electronic voting in the UK would leave major elections at risk of being targeted by cybercriminals and hackers.

"The more things that go online, the more susceptible you are to cyberattacks," Sawers said on Tuesday (3 January 2017) on the BBC's The New World: Axis of Power. The ex-spymaster maintained that traditional paper ballots continue to be "much more secure" than other voting methods.

Sawers' warning comes amid heightened concern over the threat of state-sponsored cybercrime. The US government has publicly accused "senior-most officials" in Russia of sanctioning attacks against a slew of political groups and leaking the data online.

Following a hack at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) last July, the race to the White House was often steeped in controversy over a series of damaging leaks and disclosures.

In one case, thousands of emails belonging to John Podesta, a close aide to Hillary Clinton, were leaked.

Commons Speaker John Bercow's Commission on Digital Democracy has previously called for online voting to be an option for all voters by 2020.

In January 2015, Bercow said: "I don't mean by that that it will necessarily at any stage be compulsory to vote in that way, but I think that the notion that, if it can be established as secure and reliable, people should have the option to vote online, will gain ground more and more and more."

But in light of the current uncertainty over US election hacking, Sawers, who was head of the highly secretive foreign intelligence agency between 2009 and 2014, warned: "We need to have systems which are robust.

"The only trouble is, the younger generation of people expect to be able to do things remotely and through electronic devices. Bizarrely, the stubby pencil and piece of paper that you put your cross on in the ballot box is actually much more secure than anything which is electronic."

He added: "One of the big problems we face with cyber is that it hasn't really been discussed internationally about what is [the] acceptable use of cyber-powers, where the red lines are and what happens when those red lines are crossed."

Sir John Sawers
Former MI6 chief: "We need to have systems which are robust." Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty

The Institute for Digital Democracy, also known as WebRoots Democracy, believes that digital voting should be introduced in the UK.

In a statement issued on Tuesday, it said there was "no evidence" to show online voting is more vulnerable to fraud than the paper alternative.

"Sir John is correct to highlight the security risks associated with online voting," the statement read.

"No proponent of this reform is unaware of the risks associated with modernising elections and tailoring them for the 21st century. He is wrong, however, to warn against its adoption.

"There have been more instances of fraud across the world with paper votes than electronic ones, and the recent recounts of electronic votes in the US showed no evidence of hacking.

"The 2020 elections will see the first generation of new voters that were born in this millennium knowing nothing other than a world of Facebook, iPhones and Twitter. Voter engagement will only falter and decline should we fail to begin future-proofing our democracy."

WebRoots Democracy claims that an additional 1.2 million young voters would have participated in the EU referendum had online voting been available.

Sawer's views however, mirror those of some cybersecurity experts.

Toni Gidwani, a former Department of Defense (DoD) analyst who now heads up operations research at cybersecurity firm ThreatConnect, recently told IBT: "The rules here are not as clean in terms of what's allowable and what the consequences are.

"Going forward, the situation [in the US] may force a change in the way governments will have to respond to these types of provocations," she added.