IT technology is infiltrating almost every area in our society, but there is one front where the progress is notably slow. Democracy. Why?
We still use representative democracy and elect politicians for several years at a time. This is largely done using pen and paper and the votes are counted manually. Processing the votes seems like a task well suited for computers. And why do we even need to elect representatives when we could vote directly over the net in the big and important questions? Representative democracy was after all invented thousands of years ago when people had to gather physically to hold a meeting. Then it made sense to send someone to represent a group of people, but now we could involve a whole nation directly using the net. So what’s stopping us from doing that?
Let’s first look at IT as an aid in representative democracy. First, voting machines have already been used for a long time in some countries, including the US. But there have been many controversies and elections have even been declared invalid by court (link in Finnish) due to problems in electronic handling of votes.
Handling an election seems like a straightforward IT problem, but it really isn’t. Let’s keep in mind the fundamental requirements for an election: 1. The identity of voters and their right to vote must be verified. 2. It must be ensured that no one votes more than once. 3. It shall not be possible to determine how a person has voted. 4. The integrity of the result must be verifiable. The big problem is that these requirements conflicts with each other. You must know the person who votes but still store the data in a way that makes it possible to verify the result but not identify the voter. This leads to complex designs involving cryptography. It’s no doubt possible to develop systems that fulfill these needs. The hard part is to verify the systems thoroughly enough to make sure they really work.
And here psychology enters the scene. We all know pens and paper well and we have learned to trust the traditional election system. There is a fairly large number of unclear votes in every election and we have accepted that as a fact. But people are a lot more suspicious against computerized systems. Most of us lack the ability to understand how electronic voting works. And the requirements described above causes complexity that makes it hard even for many professionals. Only crypto experts have the true ability to audit it. This makes it hard to build a chain of trust between ordinary people and the voting system.
Is our suspicious attitude justified? Yes and no. We should be suspicious against complex electronic systems and put them through thorough scrutiny before using them in elections. We must demand that their design is open and audited by independent experts. But we are at the same time forgetting the fact that traditional security measures are far from perfect. Written signatures is a very weak method to prove identity and a photo ID is not much better. A nice example is a friend of mine who keeps using an expired ID card just to test the system. The card is his own and he still looks like the picture. The only problem is that the card expired 11 years ago. During these years the card has only been rejected once! It has been used several times when voting in elections. Needless to say, an electronic signature would not pass even once. Despite this, people typically trust written signatures and ID cards a lot more than computerized security measures. The same attitude is visible when discussing electronic voting.
Another real reason to be suspicious against electronic voting is the computers’ ability to process massive amounts of data very quickly. There are always minor errors in the traditional voting systems, but massive manipulation of the result is hard. In a computerized system, on the other hand, even a fairly small glitch may enable someone to make a big impact on the result.
The other side of the coin is the question if we need representative democracy at all anymore. Should we have net polls about the important questions instead? Well, representative democracy has an important benefit, continuity. The same people are given at least some time to achieve results before people can decide if they should continue. But a four to six year term is really too short to change the big things and our politicians tend to focus on smaller and easier issues. Imagine how it would be if the people had a more direct say in decision making? That could lead to an even bigger lack of focus and strategic direction. Probably not a good idea after all.
But representative democracy can be complemented instead of replaced. Crowd sourcing is one area that is taking off. A lot of things can be crowd sourced and legislative proposals is one of them. Many countries already have a Constitution that allows ordinary citizens to prepare proposals and force the parliament to vote on them, if enough people support the proposal. Here in Finland a crowd sourced copyright act proposal made headlines globally when it recently passed the 50 000 supporter threshold (1,2 % of the voting population). This is an excellent example of how modern Internet-based schemes can complement the representative democracy. Finland’s current copyright legislation is almost 10 years old and is heavily influenced by entertainment industry lobbyists. It was written during a time when most ordinary people had no clue about copyright issues, and the politicians knew even less. For example, most ordinary people probably thinks that downloading a song illegally from the net is less severe than selling a truckload of false CDs. Our current copyright law disagrees.
Issues like this can easily become a politically hot potato that no one want to touch. Here the crowd sourced initiatives comes in really handy. Other examples of popular initiatives in Finland are a demand for equal rights for same-sex couples and making a minority language optional in the schools. Even Edward Snowden has inspired a proposal: It should be possible to apply for political asylum remotely, without visiting the target country. Another issue is however that these initiatives need to pass the parliament to become laws. The representative democracy will still get the final word. Even popular crowd sourced initiatives may be dismissed, but they are still not in vain. Every method to bring in more feedback to the decision makers during their term in office is good and helps mitigate the problems with indirect democracy.
So what will our democracy look like in ten or twenty years? Here’s my guess. We still have representative democracy. Electronic voting machines takes care of most of the load, but we may still have traditional voting on paper available as an alternative. Well, some countries rely heavily on voting machines already today. The electronic machines are accepted as the norm even if some failures do occur. Voting over Internet will certainly be available in many countries, and is actually already in use in Estonia. Direct ways to affect the political system, like legislative proposals, will be developed and play a more important role. And last but not least. Internet has already become a very powerful tool for improving the transparency of our legislative institutions and to provide feedback from voters. This trend will continue and actually make the representative democracy blend into some kind of hybrid democracy. The representatives do in theory have carte blance to rule, but they also need to constantly mind their public reputation. This means that you get some extra power to affect the legislative institutions if you participate in the monitoring and express your opinion constantly, rather than just cast a vote every 4th year.
See that floppy disc? That's how F-Secure Labs used to get malware to analyze. Nowadays, of course, it's much different, Andy Patel from the Labs explained in a recent post, "What's The Deal with Scanning Engines?" In just a few hundred words, Andy lays out what makes modern protection so different from the anti-virus that you remember from the 80s, 90s or even the early 00s. And it's not just that floppy disks the Labs once analyzed have been replaced by almost any sort of digital input, down to a piece of memory or a network stream. The whole post is worth checking out if you're interested in how relentless modern internet security must be to keep up with the panoply of online threats we face. But here's a quick look at five of the key components of endpoint protection that work in tandem to stop attacks in their tracks, as described by Andy: Scanning engines. Today’s detections are really just complex computer programs, designed to perform intricate sample analysis directly on the client. Modern detections are designed to catch thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of samples. URL blocking. Preventing a user from being exposed to a site hosting an exploit kit or other malicious content negates the need for any further protection measures. We do this largely via URL and IP reputation cloud queries. Spam blocking and email filtering also happen here. Exploit detection. If a user does manage to visit a site hosting an exploit kit, and that user is running vulnerable software, any attempt to exploit that vulnerable software will be blocked by our behavioral monitoring engine. Network and on-access scanning. If a user receives a malicious file via email or download, it will be scanned on the network or when it is written to disk. If the file is found to be malicious, it will be removed from the user’s system. Behavioral blocking. Assuming no file-based detection existed for the object, the user may then go on to open or execute the document, script, or program. At this point, malicious behavior will be blocked by our behavioral engine and again, the file will be removed. The fact is, a majority of malware delivery mechanisms are easily blocked behaviorally. In most cases, when we find new threats, we also discover that we had, in the distant past, already added logic addressing the mechanisms it uses.If you're interested in knowing more about behavioral engines, check out this post in which Andy makes then easy to understand by comparing the technology to securing an office building. So you must be wondering, does this all work? Is it enough? Well, our experts and our computers are always learning. But in all the tests this year run by independent analysts AV-Comparatives, we’ve blocked 100% of the real-world threats thrown at us. Cheers, Jason
In 1853 a strange new invention appeared in the English cityscape, and caused a small wave of moral outrage among Victorians. This perceived threat to social order was not a new drug, political movement or saucy romance novel, but the seemingly harmless letter box. One reason was the shocking development of women now being able to post letters without consent from their husbands or fathers, and the other one was that sending anonymous letters would now be even easier. Maybe Victorians weren’t very thick-skinned, and were worried about unsigned letters calling people zounderkites and rantallions skyrocketing. Who knows? History now tells us that these attempts to control this early form of long-distance communication were ridiculous. And yet, a modern version of this debate is happening even today: there are those who want to make encrypted, anonymous communication available for everyone, and those who wish to restrict it. No new technology comes without drawbacks, and encryption is no exception. However, just as with the Victorian letter box, the pros greatly outweigh the cons. But why do people want to be anonymous online? Those who oppose encryption and other methods which advance online anonymity often throw around the tired argument “If you don’t have anything to hide, you have no need to be anonymous”. Not only does this statement show an astounding lack of perspective, it is also blatantly false. According to CBS there is a rising increase in desire for online anonymity, and there are many perfectly valid and legitimate reason to cover your tracks online. A lot of us just don’t feel comfortable with their Internet Service Provider, employer or even government having access to their surfing information. We all have a right to privacy, but technology is increasing the size of our digital footprint to the point when we can never know who is monitoring what we do online. Legislation, like the aptly nicknamed Snoopers Charter have the potential to give governments and ISP’s blanket rights to monitor web traffic of normal users in the name of security. This means the responsibility to protect our individual privacy rests increasingly in our own hands, and VPN services like our own Freedome go a long way in making that happen. For many people, it’s about control. We share aspects of our lives and personality on social media and other websites, but the choice of what we share should be ours to make. This control is taken away by advertisers and tracking companies, who collect information about us from different websites and piece them together to form elaborate dossiers which contain way more information about us than most would be comfortable sharing, like your medical information or what kind of porn you watch. For many, part of being anonymous online is blocking this kind of intrusive tracking, and it’s hard to find fault in that. The most serious group of people wanting anonymity are those for whom it is not so much a matter of principle but a matter of life and death. We are talking about activists, journalists and opposition supporters who operate under oppressive regimes or in places where criminals seek out and silence those who speak against them. It’s easy for those who support intrusive privacy legislation to forget that the governments who enact them will invariably have ulterior motives to “catching terrorists” or “protecting national security”: they give governments the power to control what we say. Open and free communication is the greatest tool the masses have to keep those in power accountable for their actions, and there is nothing open or free about the kind of mass surveillance which is happening more and more, legally and otherwise. What are your reasons to be anonymous online? This is not a black & white subject, and we’d be glad to hear your thoughts via the Freedome twitter channel @FreedomeVPN.
The Internet is pretty cool. You can use it to learn about things happening all over the world. You can start your own blog or social media account to share your views and speak up about the things you care about. You can stay in touch with people that live far away. It’s really all about connecting people, and it’s changed how people live their lives. The odd thing about all this connecting is that it's surprisingly easy to become disconnected from actual people. Spending time in front of a computer screen, especially when working in roles that involve lots of engineering or programming, can put people out of the picture. All too often, things get reduced to bits and pieces of information. People are what’s important to companies. Not just employees, but all the people involved with a business. And many companies say that the customer is #1, but they’ll have employees who never interact with the people they’re serving. So in this era of hyper connectivity, it’s easy for companies and employees to lose touch with the people that are actually paying their salaries. So Donal Crotty, F-Secure’s Director of Customer Advocacy, started a new tradition in 2015 to celebrate how we feel about customers, give them an opportunity to candidly share their views on the company with the Fellows that work here, and learn more about the company and the people that help make it a success. It’s called Customer Day. “Not everyone at F-Secure has the pleasure of actually meeting the people they’re trying to help,” says Donal. “It’s just the nature of some jobs. But it’s a real shame, because all the metrics and analytical tools companies use to gauge how happy or unhappy customers actually are simply aren’t enough. Numbers and data are no replacement for people, and that’s what Customer Day is for.” So today is the 2nd annual Customer Day at F-Secure (#fscustomerday16 on Twitter). And here at our Helsinki headquarters, as well as several of our regional offices around the world, Fellows and customers are coming together to connect with each other and learn more about the people and products. And have a bit of fun too. “IT companies will often say that they’re about people and not technology. But I’m not sure how many of them actually make the effort to put the people that build products and provide behind the scenes services in front of customers” says Donal. “We, as in people in companies, talk about customer experience, but it takes something more than just talking about it to make it meaningful. I like to think of it as a type of feeling. Our technology enables, but the feeling we give to customers is what we want them to live with.” Images provided by Bret Pulkka-Stone.