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.
Black Friday and Cyber Monday are just about to kick off the holiday shopping season. Over the next month, we'll scoop up smartphones and tablets for loved ones, and also cases, covers and bags to shield them from scratches and bumps. But while we'll spend plenty to protect them from physical harm, most of us will leave an even more important area open to exposure. Check out our infographic to see what I mean: Device accessories are hot. But while a fancy leather cover may protect that tablet if you drop it, it won’t do a thing to safeguard your personal data if you’re surfing a poisoned hotspot. This holiday season, don't forget a VPN app, the most important accessory! Shopping mall image courtesy of Benson Kua, flickr.com
Many techie terms in the headlines lately. Supercookies, supertrackers, HTTP headers and X-UIDH. If you just skim the news you will learn that this is some kind of new threat against our privacy. But what is it really? Let’s dig a bit deeper. We will discover that this is an issue of surprisingly big importance. Cookies are already familiar to most of us. These are small pieces of information that a web server can ask our browser to store. They are very useful for identifying users and managing sessions. They are designed with security and privacy in mind, and users can control how these cookies are used. In short, they are essential, they can be a privacy problem but we have tools to manage that threat. What’s said above is good for us ordinary folks, but not so good for advertisers. Users get more and more privacy-aware and execute their ability to opt out from too excessive tracking. The mobile device revolution has also changed the game. More and more of our Internet access is done through apps instead of the browser. This is like using a separate “browser” for all the services we use, and this makes it a lot harder to get an overall picture of our surfing habits. And that’s exactly what advertisers want, advertising is like a lottery with bad odds unless they know who’s watching the ad. A new generation of supercookies (* were developed to fight this trend. It is a piece of information that is inserted in your web traffic by your broadband provider. Its purpose is to identify the user from whom the traffic comes. And to generate revenue for the broadband provider by selling information about who you really are to the advertisers. These supercookies are typically used on mobile broadband connections where the subscription is personal, meaning that all traffic on it comes from a single person. So why are supercookies bad? They are inserted in the traffic without your consent and you have no way to opt out. They are not visible at all on your device so there is no way to control them by using browser settings or special tools. They are designed to support advertisers and generate revenue for the mobile broadband provider. Your need for privacy has not been a design goal. They are not domain-specific like ordinary cookies. They are broadcasted to any site you communicate with. They were designed to remain secret. They are hidden in an obscure part of the header information that very few web administrators need to touch. There are two ways to pay for Internet services, with money or by letting someone profile you for marketing purposes. This system combines both. You are utilized for marketing profit by someone you pay money to. But what can and should I do as an ordinary user? Despite the name, this kind of supercookies are technically totally different from ordinary cookies. The privacy challenges related with ordinary cookies are still there and need to be managed. Supercookies have not replaced them. Whatever you do to manage ordinary cookies, keep doing it. Supercookies are only used by some mobile broadband providers. Verizon and AT&T have been most in the headlines, but at least AT&T seems to be ramping down as a result of the bad press. Some other operators are affected as well. If you use a device with a mobile broadband connection, you can test if your provider inserts them. Go to this page while connected over the device’s own data connection, not WiFi. Check what comes after “Broadcast UID:”. This field should be empty. If not, then your broadband provider uses supercookies. Changing provider is one way to get rid of them. Another way is to use a VPN-service. This will encapsulate all your traffic in an encrypted connection, which is impossible to tamper with. We happen to have a great offering for you, F-secure Freedome. Needless to say, using Freedome on your mobile device is a good idea even if you are not affected by these supercookies. Check the site for more details. Last but not least. Even if you’re unaffected, as most of you probably are, this is a great reminder of how important net neutrality is. It means that any carrier that deliver your network traffic should do that only, and not manipulate it for their own profit. This kind of tampering is one evil trick, throttling to extort money from other businesses is another. We take neutrality and equal handling for granted on many other common resources in our society. The road network, the postal service, delivery of electricity, etc. Internet is already a backbone in society and will grow even more important in the future. Maintaining neutrality and fair rules in this network is of paramount importance for our future society. Safe surfing, Micke PS. The bad press has already made AT&T drop the supercookies, which is great. All others involved mobile broadband providers may have done the same by the time you are reading this. But this is still an excellent example of why net neutrality is important and need to be guaranteed by legislation. (* This article uses the simplified term supercookie for the X-UIDH -based tracker values used by Verizon, AT&T and others in November 2014. Supercookie may in other contexts refer to other types of cookie-like objects. The common factor is that a supercookie is more persistent and harder to get rid of than an ordinary cookie. Image by Jer Thorp
We wouldn't be F-Secure without the talented and passionate researchers in our Labs. And today we'd like you to meet one whose inquisitive nature has driven him to become an inventor - and a prolific one at that. In his 14-year career with F-Secure, Jarno Niemelä has racked up an impressive 20 patents to his name and has filed 100 patent applications in total. His achievements recently won the title of "Salaried Inventor of 2014" from a group of Finnish inventors' organizations. I sat down to chat with Jarno about where he gets his ideas, and his advice for others. What area do your inventions focus on? I mostly focus on methods to help detect malware on a system, or methods of preventing malware from entering the system in the first place. How do your ideas come about? Inventions mostly happen in the evening when I'm not at work, and not even trying to think about it. I'll be working on some problem at work, and usually a day or two later, when I'm doing something totally unrelated on my own time, it hits me. I understand the problem and come up with a solution. The gym is a really good place for inventions. What motivates you to keep on inventing new solutions? Inventions just happen, pretty much. Whenever I'm able to define a problem, I'm usually always able to come up with a solution. I am lucky to be researching in areas with problems that others have not yet solved. I'll be honest, I don't really like patents that much personally. The fact is though, that companies without patents would pretty much be at the mercy of the competitors. So in my view, patents are basically company self defense. Patents keep things in balance. Were you curious about things growing up? I've always kind of been inventive. You cannot learn to become an inventor, it's either something that's in your nature or it's not. And then you need to hone the talent and learn how to work within the patent framework. Another thing that is very important is good basic education and knowledge about the field. I owe a lot to Metropolia University of Applied Sciences where I studied for my engineering degree. Do you have any advice for people who have this inventive nature and are interested in filing patents? It all starts from defining and understanding the problem. Without a thorough understanding of the problem, you can't come up with a solution. Also, when it comes to patents, it's important to know what has previously been done in your area, and be clear in exactly how your invention is different from those. Otherwise your patent can be easily rejected by the patent examiner. And finally, patents are a long process so you need patience. It can take three to five years to get a patent approved. So this is not for hasty people. What is that rock you're holding? It's my trophy, a piece of Finnish bedrock! Inventors are the bedrock of new products. Do you have any certain goals for your inventions? Before I retire I would like to have at least 50 patents to my name. - Well, he's off to a great start. Congratulations, Jarno! Follow Jarno on Twitter