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Is democracy ready for the Internet age?

Lancaster-County-Sample-Ballot-November-6-2012-Page-1IT 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.

Safe surfing,
Micke

More posts from this topic

trust, internet, internet of things

A Brief History of the Trusted Internet

By Allen Scott, managing director of F-Secure UK and Ireland The internet and the industry which surrounds it is at a tipping point. The scramble to dominate in emerging product and service markets has led many organisations to lose sight of what the Internet should be. If things continue on this downward moral trajectory, we run the risk of breaching the rights of every person who uses it. As a general rule of thumb, violating customers and prospects is not a wise sales strategy. This is why the Trusted Internet is so important now, in 2015, to stem the tide. Half the world away The internet has morphed from a military funded academic computer network into the World Wide Web into what we know today. It has created new industries and billionaire business owners. It has made the world smaller by connecting people who would never otherwise have interacted. It has helped every person by making their life a little easier – from keeping in touch with family to being the number one resource for research on any given subject. It is hard to imagine life without it. Of course, not everyone is online…yet. Figures vary, but it is generally accepted that approximately 3 billion people are now connected to the internet. That is 42% of the world’s population. By 2018, it is estimated that half of the world’s population will be online. That means that every other person could have their human right to privacy (Article 12 of the Declaration of Human Rights) violated. It is unacceptable because it is avoidable. Personal data – the ultimate renewable resource The internet is now an extension of mankind. It is our marvellous creation and we are growing more and more dependent on it. The problem is that it is turning into a Frankenstein’s monster. We are so consumed with whether something (such as tracking people’s movements online) is possible, that the industry has forgotten to ask themselves whether they should. Morality has been pushed aside in the race to gain more personal data, for knowledge is power. Don’t believe how valuable data is? Just take a look at Google. A giant of the internet, it made over £11 billion in profit last year. Not bad for a company which gives away its services for free. Google collects so much data on its users that it is the fourth largest manufacturer of servers in the world. It doesn’t even sell servers! Personal data is big business. Advertisers pay a lot of money for profiles on people. What people like, where they live, who they are likely to vote for, whether they are left-handed – some marketing companies claim to have up to 1,500 points of interest on each individual’s profile. Are all of these ‘interesting points’ something which those people are happy to have shared? I doubt it.  What about the Internet of Things Next up is the Internet of Things (IoT). A concept whereby a vast number of objects, from toasters to bridges, will be connected to the internet where they will share the data they collect. The benefits of this emerging network is that analysis of the data will lead to efficiencies and will make life easier still for people. For example, I could combine the data collected from my smartphone pedometer, my diet app and my watch’s heart monitor to analyse my health and make informed improvements. So far, so good. The IoT waters get a little murkier when you start asking who else has access to that data about me. Maybe I don’t mind if my doctor sees it, but I’m not comfortable with marketing companies or health insurers seeing that data. It’s private. We are fortunate that we are still in the fledgling stage of the IoT and have the opportunity to shape how it impacts our private lives. This is a relatively small window in which to act though, so we must be outspoken in order to protect people’s civil liberties. The ethical solution The next stage of internet development needs to be the Trusted Internet. People have the right to privacy online and it is entirely possible. Not every business and organisation online is part of the data-collecting frenzy. Some, like F-Secure, simply don’t care what you want to look up in a search engine or which websites you visit (unless they are malicious, of course!). We believe that your data is exactly that – yours. Until now, the internet has developed a taste for the free in people. Users have been reluctant to pay for services which they could get for free elsewhere. But now people are realising that when they don’t pay for the product, they are the product. With F-Secure, our customers are just that – customers. Being the customer, their data is their own. Our job is to protect them and their data. We believe that the internet should be a place for people to learn and interact. There shouldn’t be a price on this in the form of our privacy. If there should be a price, it should be monetary, so that people have the chance to buy the services they wish to use, rather than gaining access to services in exchange for personal information. I would happily pay to use Google, Facebook, LinkedIn or one of the many other sites which stakes claim to me when I sign up. We are the generation which created the internet. Let’s not be the generation which disposed of decency, respect and privacy too. [Image by Timo Arnall | Flickr]

Feb 27, 2015
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Mikko Hypponen to Talk Privacy at the Mobile World Congress

This year’s Mobile World Congress (MWC) is coming up next week. The annual Barcelona-based tech expo features the latest news in mobile technologies. One of the biggest issues of the past year has enticed our own digital freedom fighter Mikko Hypponen to participate in the event. Hypponen, a well-known advocate of digital freedom, has been defending the Internet and its users from digital threats for almost 25 years. He’s appearing at this year’s MWC on Monday, March 2 for a conference session called “Ensuring User-Centred Privacy in a Connected World”. The panel will discuss and debate different ways to ensure privacy doesn’t become a thing of the past. While Hypponen sees today’s technologies as having immeasurable benefits for us all, he’s become an outspoken critic of what he sees as what’s “going wrong in the online world”. He’s spoken prominently about a range of these issues in the past year, and been interviewed on topics as diverse as new malware and cybersecurity threats, mass surveillance and digital privacy, and the potential abuses of emerging technologies (such as the Internet of Things). The session will feature Hypponen and five other panelists. But, since the event is open to public discussion on Twitter under the #MWC15PRIV hashtag, you can contribute to the conversation. Here’s three talking points to help you get started: Security in a mobile world A recent story broken by The Intercept describes how the American and British governments hacked Gemalto, the largest SIM card manufacturer in the world. In doing so, they obtained the encryption keys that secure mobile phone calls across the globe. You can read a recent blog post about it here if you’re interested in more information about how this event might shape the discussion. Keeping safe online It recently came to light that an adware program called “Superfish” contains a security flaw that allows hackers to impersonate shopping, banking, or other websites. These “man-in-the-middle” attacks can be quite serious and trick people into sharing personal data with criminals. The incident highlights the importance of making sure people can trust their devices. And the fact that Superfish comes pre-installed on notebooks from the world’s largest PC manufacturer makes it worth discussing sooner rather than later. Privacy and the Internet of Things Samsung recently warned people to be aware when discussing personal information in front of their Smart TVs. You can get the details from this blog post, but basically the Smart TVs voice activation technology can apparently listen to what people are saying and even share the information with third parties. As more devices become “smart”, will we have to become smarter about what we say and do around them? The session is scheduled to run from 16:00 – 17:30 (CET), so don’t miss this chance to join the fight for digital freedom at the MWC. [Image by Hubert Burda Media | Flickr]

Feb 27, 2015
BY 
Apple

Which operating system is the most secure? Four points to remember.

No, you are almost certainly wrong if you tried to guess. A recent study shows that products from Apple actually are at the top when counting vulnerabilities, and that means at the bottom security-wise. Just counting vulnerabilities is not a very scientific way to measure security, and there is a debate over how to interpret the figures. But this is anyway a welcome eye-opener that helps kill old myths. Apple did for a long time stubbornly deny security problems and their marketing succeeded in building an image of security. Meanwhile Windows was the biggest and most malware-targeted system. Microsoft rolled up the sleeves and fought at the frontline against viruses and vulnerabilities. Their reputation suffered but Microsoft gradually improved in security and built an efficient process for patching security holes. Microsoft had what is most important in security, the right attitude. Apple didn’t and the recent vulnerability study shows the result. Here’s four points for people who want to select a secure operating system. Forget reputation when thinking security. Windows used to be bad and nobody really cared to attack Apple’s computers before they became popular. The old belief that Windows is unsafe and Apple is safe is just a myth nowadays. There is malware on almost all commonly used platforms. Windows Phone is the only exception with practically zero risk. Windows and Android are the most common systems and malware authors are targeting them most. So the need for an anti-malware product is naturally bigger on these systems. But the so called antivirus products of today are actually broad security suites. They protect against spam and harmful web sites too, just to mention some examples. So changes are that you want a security product anyway even if your system isn’t one of the main malware targets. So which system is most secure? It’s the one that is patched regularly. All the major systems, Windows, OS X and Linux have sufficient security for a normal private user. But they will also all become unsafe if the security updates are neglected. So security is not really a selection criteria for ordinary people. Mobile devices, phones and tablets, generally have a more modern systems architecture and a safer software distribution process. Do you have to use a desktop or laptop, or can you switch to a tablet? Dumping the big old-school devices is a way to improve security. Could it work for you? So all this really boils down to the fact that you can select any operating system you like and still be reasonable safe. There are some differences though, but it is more about old-school versus new-school devices. Not about Apple versus Microsoft versus Linux. Also remember that your own behavior affects security more than your choice of device, and that you never are 100% safe no matter what you do.   Safe surfing, Micke   Added February 27th. Yes, this controversy study has indeed stirred a heated debate, which isn’t surprising at all. Here’s an article defending Apple. It has flaws and represent a very limited view on security, but one of its important points still stands. If someone still thinks Apple is immortal and invincible, it’s time to wake up. And naturally that this whole debate is totally meaningless for ordinary users. Just keep patching what you have and you will be fine. :) Thanks to Jussi (and others) for feedback.  

Feb 26, 2015
BY