Книга: Code 2.0

Machines That Count

Machines That Count

Before November 7, 2000, there was very little discussion among national policy makers about the technology of voting machines. For most (and I was within this majority), the question of voting technology seemed trivial. Certainly, there could have been faster technologies for tallying a vote. And there could have been better technologies to check for errors. But the idea that anything important hung upon these details in technology was not an idea that made the cover of the front page of the New York Times.

The 2000 presidential election changed all that. More specifically, Florida in 2000 changed all that. Not only did the Florida experience demonstrate the imperfection in traditional mechanical devices for tabulating votes (exhibit 1, the hanging chad), it also demonstrated the extraordinary inequality that having different technologies in different parts of the state would produce. As Justice Stevens described in his dissent in Bush v. Gore, almost 4 percent of punch-card ballots were disqualified, while only 1.43 percent of optical scan ballots were disqualified[5]. And as one study estimated, changing a single vote on each machine would have changed the outcome of the election[6].

The 2004 election made things even worse. In the four years since the Florida debacle, a few companies had pushed to deploy new electronic voting machines. But these voting machines seemed to create more anxiety among vote rs than less. While most voters are not techies, everyone has a sense of the obvious queasiness that a totally electronic voting machine produces. You stand before a terminal and press buttons to indicate your vote. The machine confirms your vote and then reports the vote has been recorded. But how do you know? How could anyone know? And even if you’re not conspiracy-theory-oriented enough to believe that every voting machine is fixed, how can anyone know that when these voting machines check in with the central server, the server records their votes accurately? What’s to guarantee that the numbers won’t be fudged?

The most extreme example of this anxiety was produced by the leading electronic voting company, Diebold. In 2003, Diebold had been caught fudging the numbers associated with tests of its voting technology. Memos leaked to the public showed that Diebold’s management knew the machines were flawed and intentionally chose to hide that fact. (The company then sued students who had published these memos — for copyright infringement. The students won a countersuit against Diebold.)

That incident seemed only to harden Diebold in its ways. The company continued to refuse to reveal anything about the code that its machines ran. It refused to bid in contexts in which such transparency was required. And when you tie that refusal to its chairman’s promise to “deliver Ohio” for President Bush in 2004, you have all the makings of a perfect trust storm. You control the machines; you won’t show us how they work; and you promise a particular result in the election. Is there any doubt people would be suspicious[7]?

Now it turns out that it is a very hard question to know how electronic voting machines should be designed. In one of my own dumbest moments since turning 21, I told a colleague that there was no reason to have a conference about electronic voting since all the issues were “perfectly obvious.” They’re not perfectly obvious. In fact, they’re very difficult. It seems obvious to some that, like an ATM, there should at least be a printed receipt. But if there’s a printed receipt, that would make it simple for voters to sell their votes. Moreover, there’s no reason the receipt needs to reflect what was counted. Nor does the receipt necessarily reflect what was transmitted to any central tabulating authority. The question of how best to design these systems turns out not to be obvious. And having uttered absolute garbage about this point before, I won’t enter here into any consideration of how best this might be architected.

But however a system is architected, there is an independent point about the openness of the code that comprises the system. Again, the procedures used to tabulate votes must be transparent. In the nondigital world, those procedures were obvious. In the digital world, however they’re architected, we need a way to ensure that the machine does what it is said it will do. One simple way to do that is either to open the code to those machines, or, at a minimum, require that that code be certified by independent inspectors. Many would prefer the latter to the former, just because transparency here might increase the chances of the code being hacked. My own intuition about that is different. But whether or not the code is completely open, requirements for certification are obvious. And for certification to function, the code for the technology must — in a limited sense at least — be open.

Both of these examples make a similar point. But that point, however, is not universal. There are times when code needs to be transparent, even if there are times when it does not. I’m not talking about all code for whatever purposes. I don’t think Wal*Mart needs to reveal the code for calculating change at its check-out counters. I don’t even think Yahoo! should have to reveal the code for its Instant Messaging service. But I do think we all should think that, in certain contexts at least, the transparency of open code should be a requirement.

This is a point that Phil Zimmermann taught by his practice more than 15 years ago. Zimmermann wrote and released to the Net a program called PGP (pretty good privacy). PGP provides cryptographic privacy and authentication. But Zimmermann recognized that it would not earn trust enough to provide these services well unless he made available the source code to the program. So from the beginning (except for a brief lapse when the program was owned by a company called NAI[8]) the source code has been available for anyone to review and verify. That publicity has built confidence in the code — a confidence that could never have been produced by mere command. In this case, open code served the purpose of the programmer, as his purpose was to build confidence and trust in a system that would support privacy and authentication. Open code worked.

The hard question is whether there’s any claim to be made beyond this minimal one. That’s the question for the balance of this chapter: How does open code affect regulability?

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