Tagged digital democracy

What Google’s New China Policy Tells Us About Internet Voting

[My thanks to to election and tech expert David Jefferson for contributing this excellent, pithy, and though-provoking reflection on the day’s top tech/policy news story. — EJS]

Google recently announced in an important change of policy that it will stop censoring search results for queries coming from China.  That is interesting in its own right, but is not why I am writing this article.

According to their corporate blog post, what prompted this change of policy was the discovery of “a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on [Google’s] corporate infrastructure originating from China”.  They found similar attacks on “at least twenty other large companies from a wide range of businesses”.

Google further said that they “have evidence to suggest that a primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists”.  We are not likely to hear more detail in public about the attacks, but this is extraordinary news.

As you can imagine, Google has one of the strongest IT staffs, with among the broadest and deepest security expertise of any company in the world, and presumably the other twenty plus large companies are generally well protected as well.  Yet they were all apparently compromised remotely, by agents of a foreign power, and for political purposes!

Is there anyone out there who still believes that some small company that has run a few election pilots and now wants to run infrastructure for Internet voting has any chance of locking down its vote servers so tightly that it can withstand a similar “highly sophisticated and targeted attack” against a U.S. election when Google and these other big companies cannot?

— David Jefferson

OSDV Foundation to Co-Sponsor 2010 UOCAVA Summit

2010SummitToday, the OSDV Foundation announced it will co-sponsor the 2010 UOCAVA Summit and serve as the Conference’s Technology Tract Co-Host for this important Overseas Vote Foundation premier event.  This fourth annual event will be held in Munich, Germany 17-19 March.

Summit 2010 will constructively address overseas and military voting issues and challenges that we face today.  And in light of the MOVE Act legislation, mandating a digital means by which overseas and military voters can verify and update their voter registration and (importantly) download a blank ballot for an up-coming election, the discussions, panels, and sessions will be livelier than usual and promise engaging important discourse on the implementation details of this new Federal mandate.

The event is open to all interested overseas citizen voters, members of the military and foreign services and their families, students, advocates, technologists, innovators, members of congress, election officials, secretaries of state, academics and members of the press.

There will be critical discussions and debates on pressing issues, new technologies, innovative outreach and more; and several TrustTheVote and OSDV Foundation officials and developers will be on hand.  Topics will include:

  • Impact of the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act
  • Military and Overseas Voter Outreach Strategies for Success
  • Experts Debate on the Issues around Online, Internet-based Voting for Overseas and Military Voters: Debate
  • Focus on the States: Secretaries of State Speak Out on Overseas and Military Voting
  • Reaching-out to New Overseas and Military Voters: Strategies and Actions for 2008
  • New Strategies for the Future from the Federal Voting Assistance Program
  • Invited Keynote Speaker: Senator Jim Webb, Virginia

Summit 2010 is a forum for collaborative innovation intended to stimulate the creative intellect of a diverse network to address the pressing challenges facing the millions of overseas and military voters today in ways that will bring real tangible outcomes. We believe it is a very important venue where attendees will have opportunities to see, touch, and try TrustTheVote technology under development to address the needs of UOCAVA voters.


FCC Wanders into the Internet Voting Quagmire

Why, oh why?” you’re wondering (given our teaser title, that is).  Well, at first we were we also wondering why.   This all began about a month ago, and it’s a bit clearer now.  With some breathing room made possible by the holiday, I want to explain how the FCC and online elections could be even remotely connected (no pun intended), but first, Happy Holidays, Happy Hanukkah (belated), and Merry Christmas (today) to those celebrating.

Two weeks ago we responded to an FCCrequest for comment;” an agency process with far more regulatory structure than the kind of “RFC” we’re used to.  But being the organization we are, with the mission we have, we felt we had to weigh in.

To be sure, we knew there would be tons of submissions from every “Who-Dog and their Larry” (and apparently we weren’t far off).  So the request was simply this: the FCC wanted input on the role of broadband in civic participation in the age of digital democracy.  And they divided that inquiry into two categories:

  1. the so-called digital town hall and related online civic interaction services (the meat and potatoes of the emerging “digital democracy”), and
  2. (wait for it) …elections.

Of course, the activists quickly decoded the FCC inquiry about broadband in the process of elections to read: “Internet Voting” and acted accordingly.  Although we’re not advocates of using the public Internet for casting and counting of ballots any time soon, we were a bit more circumspect in our addressing the FCC’s inquiry.

You see, we’ve been rhythmically bombarded with inquiries about whether our open source voting systems development efforts include the Internet, what we think of Internet-based public elections, and when will people be able vote from their Droid or iPhone, etc.  And we tread gently on that issue because, while we’re excited by the enthusiasm we’re seeing for bringing real innovation into voting systems, frankly, there is far more to do to bring about trust, transparency, accuracy, and security in computers used in elections than we have resources to address as quickly as we’d like, let alone looking at a public, largely insecure transport layer for the critical data involved.  I’m sure there is some alluring if not downright techno-sexiness to that concept, but the gap between here and reality would’ve downright inspired Moses at the shore of the Red Sea.

So, we looked at the FCC inquiry when it was launched in mid-November and at first, shrugged it off as someone playing on subway rails.  Then it dawned on us: this was a chance to go on record with our position and make sure that we’re part of that conversation before someone attempts something silly like piloting an election across the cloud (OMG).

On a more serious note, we were catalyzed to comment by [1] some reality about why the FCC is wandering into this quagmire when Lord knows they have plenty to do with spectrum auctions, net neutrality, universal access fees, etc., and [2] important work we’re involved in through our partnership with the Overseas Vote Foundation and MOVE Act implementation.  I’ll have more to say about the MOVE Act in a separate post, but suffice it to note here that the Act, recently signed into law, is designed to enfranchise military and overseas voters in elections by requiring States to provide online methods for overseas voters to transmit absentee applications and voter registration information and download blank ballots for mark and return by surface postal mail.

For those readers who want to cut to the chase and see what we had to say in response to this curious FCC inquiry, have at it here.  For the rest who remain amused by our fuzzy insight, read on.

So that “reality check” is that the Obama Administration is leaning on the FCC to fashion a strategic plan for widespread broadband adoption and growth in the U.S. as part of its Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009.  And in the course of doing that, the FCC has been looking into the needs of citizens to access the Internet through reasonably speedy means (read: broadband).  So, civic participation would certainly constitute a valid reason for the FCC wandering into the free market’s territory of broadband build-out, right?  And if the FCC could determine the utility of broadband access to foster civic participation, then a whole bunch of justification for crafting this strategic broadband plan could be made.  Thus, the FCC needed to pose a public inquiry, and someone (we aren’t sure who, but have a theory) put the proverbial bug in the FCC collective ear that “elections” are one such “civic engagement” to be examined.  Thus the FCC waded into this quagmire (or firmly gripped the 3rd rail; choose the metaphor that paints the preferred picture) of Internet voting.

I note as an aside that one of our esteemed Sr. Members of Technical Staff, Pito Salas, posted a comment here recently about the notable absence of elections on the agenda of “open government.”  Well, it appears that while it may not have appeared on that agenda, it seems to be on the Administration’s agenda vis-à-vis the FCC inquiry.

And so we responded.

What’s the sum and substance of our position?  Well here it is in short, and you can read more if you dare.  I’ll summarize with the synopsis followed by a Technology Point and a Policy Point.

For starters, The OSDV Foundation and TrustTheVote Project were pleased to have had an opportunity to provide comment on an increasingly vital aspect of broadband in the United States: its use in civic participation and the processes of democracy.

Technology Point: The use of the Internet as an element of critical democracy infrastructure is here to stay.  The ‘Net is inherently insecure, but affords citizens a vital means of communication and information sharing.  Continued availability and accessibility to real broadband requires continued development of the capabilities of packet-switched networking.

Policy Point: The Internet is becoming critical infrastructure and its role in a digital democracy is sufficiently vital enough to build broadband policy around the ability of American citizens to participate in the processes of democracy in a digital age.

We encouraged the Commission to develop a comprehensive national broadband plan that particularly includes a plan for the use of broadband infrastructure and services to advance civic participation.

Technology Point: The processes of civic participation will require services that are transparent, trustworthy, accurate, and secure.  This means continued innovation in a service layer that is inherently insecure.

Policy Point: A national broadband public policy will necessarily entail a yin-yang relationship with private enterprise.  Ensuring civic engagement is a clear matter for government and a solid reason to have a broadband public policy in place, which can inform many debates and legislative initiatives.  And yet, clear roles and responsibilities between government and the privates sector in delivering this critical infrastructure is imperative.

To the extent their Plan includes consideration of broadband infrastructure for election processes and services, we advised careful consideration of what the architecture for a broadband-based voting system should look like and called upon experts and stakeholders to facilitate that understanding.  Clearly, the digital age and increasingly mobile society can benefit from digital means for such civic participation services.  However, the extent to which the challenges discussed in their inquiry can be adequately addressed remains unclear.

Technology Point: There is much to be worked out in terms of technically ensuring accuracy, transparency, trust and security in relying upon the Internet or broadband infrastructure to conduct civic engagement.

Policy Point: Fashioning this policy cannot occur in a vacuum void of competent technical input.

Nevertheless, any such Plan should consider the possibility that broadband infrastructure may be called upon in the future to support and sustain elections services in some capacity, whether strictly for back-office functions or all the way out to ballot casting and counting services.

Technology Point: If this cat is out of the bag, considerable research, development, and innovation is required before broadband infrstructure (read: Internet) can be reasonably relied upon for the level of civic engagement contemplated in the FCC inquiry.

Policy Point: Any broadband policy must consider this inevitable move toward a digital democracy.  Accordingly, issues such as digital divide, network neutrality, final mile, and quality of service assurances must be considered.

We do not recommend reliance on home or personal broadband connected digital devices for citizen-facing voting services for the foreseeable future or until such time as the challenges discussed herein are resolved to the satisfaction of the public.

Technology Point: The Internet is inherently insecure; home and personal computers are inherently insecure.  And a whole bunch of technical innovation is required to change that, and even then, these problems are likely to persist.

Policy Point: Disciplined thought leadership is imperative.  Sure we’d all like to simply cast our ballots from wherever we are with whatever device we have access to.  And some no longer consider the privacy element and vote-sale concern to be issues.  But many still do and will for some time to come.  The benefits of speeding towards a fully digital, online democracy continue to be outweighed by the risks of doing so.  That does not mean policy should forbid such, but it does compel policy makers to provide guidelines for cautiously proceeding.

That advised, we did encourage the Commission to take a citizen-centric approach to fashioning its broadband policy with regard to civic participation in terms of voting and elections services.  By “citizen-centric” we were referring to an approach that considers the wants and needs of an increasingly mobile society in a digital age.  As one simple example, we suggested the FCC consider the typical citizen voting situation wherein the voter is employed sufficiently far away from their home precinct such that it is logistically impossible for them to reach their polling place in time before or after their work day to cast their ballot, while fulfilling their responsibilities to their employer.

Technology Point: America is the consummate mobile society; whether its our propensity to relocate or our requirements of travel, the 21st century requires information services to put consumers at the center and appreciate and respect their mobility.

Policy Point: While there remains tremendous value in the traditional concepts of the polling place and election day, the fact is our 21st century society is now passing from the industrial age into the information age.  And we’re in a transition period between ages.  The best policy will afford a spectrum of options, supporting everyone from those who are content to taking a day off to cast their ballots, to those who need to cast it remotely in a time shifted manner.

If there are any “best-practices” we can identify at this juncture with regard to broadband deployment of election services, two were particularly clear to us:

  1. personal or home connected devices should not be permitted to be utilized for ballot casting; and
  2. broadband connected ballot marking devices should be restricted to government authorized polling places.

Technology Point: The technical challenges to allow such are mountainous hurdles at this point, unless the venue can be controlled (and even then, issues will abound, but may be more readily addressable)

Policy Point: Respect must be sustained for the privacy imperative of casting ballots, and providing a means and venue where such can be done in a private and secure manner, while leveraging the benefits of technology requires political pragmatism.

Finally, we advised that the overseas voting challenges combined with the MOVE Act signed into law offer an opportunity to incrementally approach leveraging of broadband infrastructure to improve participation of overseas citizens, military, and diplomatic personnel in U.S. elections.  And that should begin with the delivery of blank ballots.

So, that’s our position, and we’re sticking with it.

Happy Holidays!

Wired: Nation’s “First” Open Source Election Software

Wired’s Kim Zetter reported on our Hollywood Hill event, in an article titled “Nation’s First Open Source Election Software Released.”  I got a few questions about that “First” part, and I thought I’d share a few personal thoughts about it.

First of all, there is certainly plenty of open source software that does election-related stuff, as a few searches on github and sourceforge will show you. And there are other organizations that have had open source election software as part of their activities. FairVote‘s work on IRV software (some done by TTV’s own Aleks Totic) is a notable example. Another is Ben Adida‘s notable work (on crypto-enabled ballot count verification among other things) represented in his Helios system, recently used in a real university election. And Helios is only one of several such systems.

Now, what is “first” about OSDV’s release of a part of the election tech suite that we’re developing in the TTV project? In my own view, one first is that the software is targeted at U.S. elections specifically, and on providing  automation of election operations in ways that match the existing practices and needs of U.S. elections officials. The many well-meaning efforts on open-source Web apps for Internet voting, for example, are laudable work, but not what most election officials actually need right now or can legally deploy and use for U.S. government elections.

So I think that it is a first indeed, when you combine that factor with all the other attributes of open-source, non-proprietary, open-data, operations-transparent, and so forth. It’s not exactly a great invention to do what we’re doing: pick a target for deployment; talk to the people who work there; find out what they want, and how to deliver it without asking them to also change the way that they do their work. Applied to election tech development, that approach is fundamental to what we do, and whether our work  is “first.”


Minnesota Finally Has 2 Senators (& a National Civic Summit)

The OSDV team had a wonderful time in beautiful, but construction-heavy downtown Minneapolis, MN. The TrustTheVote Project was an active participant at the National Civic Summit. Spanning July 15th through the 17th, the two-day conference was free and open to the public.

The Summit asked participants, “How can we increase civic imagination and capacity to solve today’s challenges in ways that serve the public interest?” Good question.

Heavy involvement from Minnesota’s Citizens League, the League of Women Voters, the governmental and public affairs teams at Target Corp. (sans Target dog), and a strategic dovetail into the regular meeting of the National Association of Secretaries of State meant that a wide variety of presenters and participants were involved.

A real highlight was a presentation Friday by Aneesh Chopra, Federal Chief Technology Officer, who spoke about the White House’s efforts to bring technology and tools to simplify, streamline, and open government for the people. Well done, “we.gov”!

Aneesh Chopra is introduced at the National Civic Summit 2009

Aneesh Chopra is introduced at the National Civic Summit 2009

Greg Miller, Chief Development Officer at OSDV delivered a talk on critical democracy infrastructure, which was attended by a group including California Secretary of State Debra Bowen and Minnesota elections director Gary Poser. The highlight of the Summit was the opportunity to engage in discourse with informed citizens–sharing the latest work of the TrustTheVote Project. They found us at the booth, during the Tweetup, in presentations, and in the hallways, asking questions about open source, the ways in which technology can assist in elections, and wondering how they might help.

Greg Miller presents the TrustTheVote Project at the National Civic Summit 2009

Greg Miller presents the TrustTheVote Project at the National Civic Summit 2009

Our hats are off to the many volunteers who made the Summit a success!

The Internet Changed Something About Elections, Just Not What You Think

In the aftermath of this historic election a couple of observations are worth making.

First, the need for election reform and how America votes persists. Had the election not gone down in the manner it did, and had Senator McCain not conceded when he did, make no mistake challenges would have ensued. But I’ll leave that for another post. For this one, let me turn attention to the second. So,

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