Computers Are Programmed By People Not Magic

from the trust-but-verify dept

Ben Adida has a great post discussing the misplaced faith people often have in the machines in their lives, and the way that faith often spills over to e-voting. He mentions a scene in the 2006 HBO documentary on e-voting where an election official breaks down in tears when someone shows her how her voting machines could be hacked. For computer programmers, who are intimately familiar with what goes on under the hood, the idea that we should automatically trust anything a machine tells us is a little bit ridiculous. We're aware that computers are extremely complex devices that can go wrong in any number of ways, that they're designed by fallible human beings, and that it requires a lot of very careful engineering to make sure they're secure and reliable. We recognize, in particular, that the more complex a system is, the more likely it is to have problems, and so the more skeptical we should be of its results. It's not a coincidence that $5 pocket calculators tend to work flawlessly, while complex systems like Excel and the Pentium chip sometimes make basic arithmetic errors: the greater complexity increases the number of ways things can go wrong.

But a lot of non-technical folks seem to view things the other way around. Last week, for example, I noted a a Chicago law professor who thinks that "the future is surely with the touch-screen or some other form of online voting." The problem with this statement is that if our goal is security and reliability, which it should be, the added complexity of computers and touchscreens is a big disadvantage. But this isn't obvious if you've never looked under the hood to appreciate all the things that could go wrong. Computers are not magical boxes that always produce the correct answer, but unfortunately, a lot of people seem to think that they are.

Filed Under: complexity, e-voting, magic, programming

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 Mar 2008 @ 6:43pm

    So combine the Hi-Tech with the Lo-Tech

    Said it before, on this website even. The "best" solution is to combine the systems.

    Touch Screens and E-Voting have their graces. It's easier to use (just click the picture of the candidate is a possibility) and faster to count.

    My suggestion:

    - Voters use a Touch Screen to place their votes.
    - The Voting Machine fills in the dot/punches the hole.
    - When you are done with the Touch Screen the Voting Machine spits out your "Scantron" type card.
    - You now have a piece of paper and can double check to make sure its what you voted. You could even have a "Validation" screen where you just put the paper up to the screen and as long as all you see is green everything is fine, though that's less secure than manually doing it.
    - You put the Voting Card into the Counting Machine.

    You still have to worry about the security of the Counting Machine and Voting Machine and validate their software (which means you damn well share the source code at least with the State Government, if not also the Federal).

    The major difference, you now have a paper trail. And you can store that stuff at the State Capital until the next election, where it won't matter anymore.

    And again, they need to throw up some REAL security. And because this is _not_ a consumer or business item, but one that has far reaching consequences you can't claim people can't look at your stuff.

    The State Government (and Federal Government) should BOTH have to certify the machines themselves. With the full source code made available.

    You _CAN NOT_ hide shit when it is this important.

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