Sunday, November 15, 2009

Promotional Discourse: A Facade for Security Concerns

This past May, the citizens of Honolulu participated in an all-digital online and telephone local election using the E1C online voting system. In his Huffington Post article “America’s Newest State Holds America’s Newest Election, Aaron Contorer, Chief of Products and Partnerships at Everyone Counts, Inc. (the city of Honolulu used this company’s E1C voting system in its election) argues that online voting promotes democratic values, increases voter convenience, and "is the best method ever invented for securely delivering information and decisions." While I will concede that online voting is a convenient voting method (especially since voters don’t have to go to polls), Contorer’s positive illustration of security in online voting should not be accepted at face value.

The hyperbole that online voting is the “best method ever invented for securely delivering information” is not a sufficient justification for its widespread use. Although Contorer points out that online voting in Hawaii ensured that “all of [its citizens’] votes are being secured using military-grade encryption technology,” such a phrase is mere selling point for the E1C voting system. It does not sufficiently address the scope and magnitude of security issues associated with online voting. According to Barbara Simons, a member of the Board of Advisors of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, “encryption is only a secondary part of any electronic security. It does nothing at all to protect against insider attacks, denial of service attacks, various forms of spoofing, viruses, or many kinds of ordinary software bugs.” Although there are a host of technical security issues involved, I do not want to focus on them. Instead, I want to focus my criticism on the use of promotional discourse in policymaking. Brief promotional descriptions such as “military-grade encryption technology” do not discuss what the security problems are and how effective encryption technology is at solving them. Consequently, such promotional descriptions distract attention from constructive discussion about reasonable security concerns.

Next, Contorer argues that “we have been banking online and shopping online for over a decade” and that we should be able to rely on the security of online voting as a result. However, this claim misunderstands that reason that online banking/shopping are secure is because such mediums have systems in place that allow police, bank officials, etc. to potentially detect fraudulent activities through transaction between people. By contrast, Simons argues that online voting cannot legally allow state officials to determine how people vote because doing so would be a violation of voter privacy. As a result, online voting presents a double-bind between the values of security and democratic procedure. Either a) we can verify if fraudulent activities have occurred in elections by tying the votes to their individual voters and thereby violating the voters’ right to a private ballot on a mass scale or b) we can protect voter anonymity, but jeopardize security.

Contorer, Aaron. “America’s Newest State Holds America’s Newest Election.” The Huffington Post. 14 May 2009. Accessed 15 November 09.

Simons, Barbara. Justin Moore. “The Internet and Voting: Worth Doing Right.” Verified The Huffington Post. 2 June 2009. Accessed 15 November 09.

1 comment:

  1. I agree that security is an issue. But you grant too quickly the “convenience” factor. Convenient for whom? Does everyone in Hawaii have a home computer and Internet connection? Are you making it differentially less convenient for some classes of voters?

    I like the Simons quotes. She’s an old friend of mine. Your concern about “promotional” discourse is well place and applies more generally to cases where companies stand to profit from governmental functioning. Another big example is the “prison-industrial complex” that makes more money every time another person gets sent to jail. Is election management too central to democracy to put it under commercial pressures?