…not much we think.

Yesterday’s news of Microsoft co-founder billionaire Paul Allen’s investing $40M in the Spanish election technology company Scytl is validation that elections remain a backwater of innovation in the digital age.

But it is not validation that there is a viable commercial market for voting systems of the size typically attracting venture capitalists; the market is dysfunctional and small and governments continue to be without budget.

And the challenges of building a user-friendly secure online voting system that simultaneously protects the anonymity of the ballot is an interesting problem that only an investor of the stature of Mr. Allen can tackle.

We think this illuminates a larger question:

To what extent should the core technology of the most vital aspect of our Democracy be proprietary and black box, rather than publicly owned and transparent?

To us, that is a threshold public policy question, commercial investment viability issues notwithstanding.

To be sure, it is encouraging to see Vulcan Capital and a visionary like Paul Allen invest in voting technology. The challenges facing a successful elections ecosystem are complex and evolving and we will need the collective genius of the tech industry’s brightest to deliver fundamental innovation.

We at the TrustTheVote Project believe voting is a vital component of our nation’s democracy infrastructure and that American voters expect and deserve a voting experience that’s verifiable, accurate, secure and transparent.  Will Scytl be the way to do so?

The Main Thing

The one thing that stood out to us in the various articles on the investment were Scytl’s comments and assertions of their security with international patents on cryptographic protocols.  We’ve been around the space of INFOSEC for a long time and know a lot of really smart people in the crypto field.  So, we’re curious to learn more about their IP innovations.  And yet that assertion is actually a red herring to us.

Here’s the main thing: transacting ballots over the public packet switched network is not simply about security.   Its also about privacy; that is, the secrecy of the ballot.  Here is an immutable maxim about the digital world of security and privacy: there is an inverse relationship, which holds that as security is increased, privacy must be decreased, and vice-verse.  Just consider any airport security experience.  If you want maximum security then you must surrender a bunch of privacy.  This is the main challenge of transacting ballots across the Internet, and why that transaction is so very different from banking online or looking at your medical record.

And then there is the entire issue of infrastructure.  We continue to harp on this, and still wait for a good answer.  If by their own admissions, the Department of Defense, Google, Target, and dozens of others have challenges securifying their own data centers, how exactly can we be certain that a vendor on a cloud-based service model or an in-house data center of a county or State has any better chance of doing so? Security is an arms race.  Consider the news today about Heartbleed alone.

Oh, and please for the sake of credibility can the marketing machinery stop using the phrase “military grade security?”  There is no such thing.  And it has nothing to do with an increase in the  128-bit encryption standard RSA keys to say, 512 or 1024 bit.  128-bit keys are fine and there is nothing military to it (other than the Military uses it).  Here is an interesting article from some years ago on the sufficiency of current crypto and the related marketing arms race.  Saying “military grade” is meaningless hype.  Besides, the security issues run far beyond the transit of data between machines.

In short, there is much the public should demand to understand from anyone’s security assertions, international patents notwithstanding.  And that goes for us too.

The Bottom Line

While we laud Mr. Allen’s investment in what surely is an interesting problem, no one should think for a moment that this signals some sort of commercial viability or tremendous growth market opportunity.  Nor should anyone assume that throwing money at a problem will necessarily fix it (or deliver us from the backwaters of Government elections I.T.).  Nor should we assume that this somehow validates Scytl’s “model” for “security.”

Perhaps more importantly, while we need lots of attention, research, development and experimentation, the bottom line to us is whether the outcome should be a commercial proprietary black-box result or an open transparent publicly owned result… where the “result” as used here refers to the core technology of casting and counting ballots, and not the viable and necessary commercial business of delivering, deploying and servicing that technology.