Innovation & Design

The Papal Conclave May Be the Most Hack-Proof Election on the Planet


Archbishop Piero Marini closes the doors to the Sistine Chapel ahead of the Papal conclave, in Vatican City, on April 18, 2005

Photograph by Arturo Mari/AFP via Getty Images

Archbishop Piero Marini closes the doors to the Sistine Chapel ahead of the Papal conclave, in Vatican City, on April 18, 2005

The College of Cardinals’ top-secret discussions to choose the next pope got off to a shaky start on Monday morning. An impostor dressed in black vestments with a fuchsia sash, sporting a chunky crucifix, crashed the “pre-conclave” proceedings. Despite his clumsy ensemble, he succeeded in getting past perimeter security, the Guardian reported, before the Swiss Guard detained him and ushered him away.

Don’t be fooled. The papal conclave may be officiated by a polyglot assembly of mostly senior citizen cardinals, many of whom have only just met for the first time, but it is about as secure a vote as you’ll find. Vatican officials have been fine-tuning the election procedure for centuries, and today security experts regard it as among the most hack-proof votes on the planet.

“On a security basis, I’d grade it a 9.998 out of 10,” says Bruce Schneier, a digital security expert and author of Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust Society Needs to Survive. In 2005, prior to the conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI, Schneier first posed the question on his blog of whether the conclave could be hacked. His answer, then and today? Don’t bet on it.

“The only difference,” Schneier says of the election in 2005 and the vote that’s anticipated in the coming days, “is that today most everybody is going to be more wired. Everyone will have smartphones. I don’t think, though, that will impact whether the vote can be hacked. It might impact the politics of it all. But that’s all.”

According to the rules Pope John Paul II codified in 1996 in Universi Dominici Gregis, the constitutional bylaws for selecting a new pope, all cardinal electors—this year the number is expected to be 115—will have to obey a strict news blackout once the conclave begins. Today those rules have been interpreted to mean no Internet access and no phone calls (except in an emergency), and certainly no texting or tweeting, pertinent then for the six cardinals active on Twitter. Even if one rogue cardinal was tempted to tweet or text the vote results, the missive wouldn’t get very far. Security officials have installed special electronic communications barriers to ensure there is no mobile phone reception in the Sistine Chapel, where the vote will take place, during the conclave. For good measure, Vatican officials had the Sistine Chapel, which was closed to tourists on Tuesday, swept for recording and transmission devices to ensure nobody eavesdrops on the voting.

The rules of secrecy, which each cardinal elector swears to uphold under oath, were set to ensure that no outside influences infiltrate the conclave. Only prayer, reflection, and closed-door discussions with fellow electors can govern the group’s decision, the bylaws state, a far cry from 1503 when Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere openly bribed cardinals to become Pope Julius II, or “Julius the Terrible” as history would later call him. Today’s restrictions on information flows in or out of the Sistine Chapel all but ensure no leaks will emerge on who are the front-runners in the early rounds. That’s crucial as it usually takes several rounds and a few days to reach the two-thirds majority required to elect a pope; in 2005 it took a relatively swift four rounds to elect Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger on the morning of day three.

When it comes to the vote itself, the low-tech procedure is designed to ensure the decision is beyond dispute. Each ballot is cast on a slip of paper. After every cardinal has voted, done by placing his ballot into a large urn—no hanging chad here—each ballot is read aloud to the group and the vote is recorded in a ledger. At the end of each round, the votes are burned. White smoke means a two-thirds vote has been reached, enough to name the next pope; black smoke means the votes fell short and another round is required. (In the case of a vote tally discrepancy, the ballots are burned and a recount is ordered.)

It is the ritual that makes the vote so secure, Schneier says. “From a security perspective, the papal vote has a lot of things going for it. It’s a small group. Everything is done out in the open. They are all watching as the votes are counted. This cannot be done with a city council election, for example. The lesson is, when an election process is left to develop over this many years, you end up with something surprisingly good.”

For Vatican watchers, the ritual will make for a frustrating few days with little detail on the pending outcome—just the occasional puff of smoke.

Warner writes about innovation for Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow him on Twitter @bernhardwarner.

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