Open Rights Group: Hacking Democracy

Film followed by panel discussion, organised by Open Rights Group, at UCL on the evening of February 6th.

Hacking Democracy is a 2006 HBO release – synopsis here. The Open Rights Group is an awareness-raising org concerned with the threats to democracy posed by ignorant or malevolent use of technology.

The film was fine – obviously produced for US audiences – rhetorical and one-sided as all docu-drama is. Our perspective was the view of the heroic campaigning “grandmotherly figure” (grandmothers have no particular appeal for me – now if it had been a chimpanzee…) who while likeable and tenacious, was seriously over-produced. But a good film with some real revelations, plenty of comic relief (intentional, right?), and a road movie flavour to it.

The panel was a bit of a problem. Jon Pugh (Lib Dem MP for Southport) summarised and gave cursory attention to a number of reasons why e-voting might be attractive to electoral wonks. The first was Labour ‘s “infatuation with technology”, then there was saving money on clerical work, increased voter turn out, and a reduction in fraud and human error. The panel gave desultory attention to all of these reasons and was more dismissive than systematic about dismantling them.

One panelist, an academic, e-voting specialist and campaigner called Rebecca Mercury undertook to explore the holes in the practicalities of e-voting and did a good job except there was one ultimate reason for not pursuing e-voting which puts a lid on the debate: e-voting software code falls into a category of intransigent mathematical problems known as NP – we are told that we’d need a maths degree to understand this, and in the meanwhile we should just take it from the hackers that anything in this category should be ruled out of government initiatives. I agree in principle that when my world, as it increasingly does, depends on maths and programming, I’m basically obliged to defer to authorities in maths and programming. If they tell me that it can’t be done securely, that should be enough.

But that’s not entirely satisfactory; there’s a knee-jerk response to that way of thinking which is to keep things simple – only use it if you can see how it works and leave the door open for the Luddites. In fact one of the ORG volunteers made this sweeping statement: if you have to explain it, it’s already too complicated. Coming from a programmer, that sounded pretty patriarchal. Luckily he qualified it later. Another source of mutiny against these well-meaning techno-vigilantes who say “You absolutely can’t, but you’re too ignorant to understand why” is a tiny suspicion that they might be wrong, that they’ve failed to apply themselves properly to the problem at hand, that they just don’t want it to work. And it’s important to refute this, to honestly engage with trying to make it work – as Rebecca Mercury has – otherwise there’s a credibility problem. Because what Jon Pugh dismisses as the Government’s infatuation with technology may just as likely be an imperative to modernise – its problem, as well as the hubris ORG senses, is just as much likely to be a mistaken idea of modernity as it is to be technophilia. Governments are obliged to modernise. But the fact remains that voting – which as Jon Pugh points out has evolved (very clever – make voting seem like an ecosystem and you start all the little conservation bells chiming) slowly and deliberately into a highly secure system which plenty of checks and balances – is only a good candidate for this kind of modernisation if ‘the score card is balanced’, as they say: financial savings or increased turn-out must not come at the expense of the validity and trustworthiness of the process itself.

The trouble with the evening was that there was no proponent of e-voting on the panel. As a result, people like me (would-be responsible citizen voters, new to and unlikely to specialise in the area) are vulnerable to straw-man arguments and self-righteous one-sidedness.

By the end I had acquired a long list of questions – quite basic questions such as who is behind the Government e-voting initiative, what is the most important reason to adopt e-voting, are there sleazy connections between the vendors and the commissioners, and so on – which nobody seemed to be able to answer. Which is fine for now – it’s early days. As long as ORG is interested in pursuing and revealing these things for its members. As one woman cogently observed in the pub afterwards, ORG needs to decide whether it’s a single issue pressure group or a credible NGO willing to seriously engage with the arguments of its contra camp.

I signed Danny O’Brien’s original pledge and I’ve finally set up my DD.

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