Howdy from Austin, Texas, where I’m filing today’s column from a taco shop as this year’s SXSW festival concludes.
The security of electronic voting systems has become a hot button issue in recent years. Just this week researchers disclosed that they uncovered a critical flaw in an electronic voting system Switzerland plans to roll out. The vulnerability, which the system’s developers acknowledged and said they will fix, would allow an attacker to manipulate votes undetected. The Swiss government said it still planned to use the system in upcoming elections, including one slated for later this month.
“Let us not downplay this,” commented Sarah Jamie Lewis, one of the bug-discoverers and an executive director of the Open Privacy Research Society, a Canadian non-profit, in a post on Twitter. “This code is intended to secure national elections. Election security has a direct impact on the distribution of power within a democracy. The public has a right to know everything about the design and implementation of the system.”
Lewis broadcasted her findings rather than privately reporting them to the relevant authorities and keeping quiet, as a Swiss government bug bounty program stipulated. She framed her decision as a matter of principle: In a democracy, everyone deserves to know about issues that could potentially affect elections. Now she is alleging that the voting software contains other unfixed bugs, though they are less serious than the headline-grabbing flaw. She is urging the Swiss government to reconsider adopting the technology until “many critical questions have been answered.”
Caution would seem prudent—but some government officials and political fixers are prepared to take a risk. At a panel at SXSW this morning, I listened to Bradley Tusk, a venture capitalist and former campaign manager for Mike Bloomberg, evangelize the benefits of electronic, mobile voting, which he said can open electoral access to disenfranchised populations. Another panelist, Andre McGregor, a former FBI agent, said electronic voting could help solve problems that plague the existing paper-based ballot system, including 3% margins of error in machine-read votes.
Experiments are already underway in the United States. After the panel, West Virginian Secretary of State Mac Warner told me he decided to stick his neck out last year and pioneer an electronic, blockchain-based system in his home state after recalling his own past experiences attempting to vote overseas while serving in the military. War-fighters have very low participation rates in elections because the process is so poorly set up, he said. Electronic voting systems can help give a voice to people who absolutely should have a say in the country’s direction as well as its foreign policy, he said.
Though electronic voting systems will never be 100%, completely safe—all software contains bugs—they have many benefits that make them worth exploring. Delicately.
Facebook fracases. Fortune’s latest cover story, “About Face,” delves into the company’s planned privacy pivot amid severe regulatory and business headwinds. The latest developments: at least two top executives are leaving the company, while former executives, like WhatsApp founder Brian Acton, continue to speak out against it. Federal prosecutors are conducting a criminal investigation into data sharing deals Facebook struck with phone makers. Facebook is suing two men who allegedly built online quizzes to steal people’s data. And this week’s 14-hour outage—the longest the company has suffered in 15 years? Not due to hackers, per Facebook.
Where’s your head at? Tech companies are trawling online databases containing images of people’s faces in order to train their facial recognition algorithms. IBM, for example, scooped up and scraped photos posted to Flickr earlier this year to create tools aimed at reducing bias. It’s extremely hard for people to opt out of these research projects, as NBC News reports.
Whatever floats your boat. The U.S. Navy and its contractors are under siege by foreign hackers intent on—and very successful at—stealing military secrets. The Wall Street Journal got its hands on an internal review commissioned by the Secretary of the Navy, Richard V. Spencer, which paints a bleak picture of the situation. One troubling quote from the report: China has “derived an incalculable near- and long-term military advantage from it [the hacking], thereby altering the calculus of global power.”
Christchurch massacre. It is impossible to make sense of the depravity that would drive someone to commit such atrocious acts. The New York Times‘ Kevin Roose commented on the Internet’s role here: “The internet is now the place where the seeds of extremism are planted and watered, where platform incentives guide creators toward the ideological poles, and where people with hateful and violent beliefs can find and feed off one another. So the pattern continues. People become fluent in the culture of online extremism, they make and consume edgy memes, they cluster and harden. And once in a while, one of them erupts.”
Always be prepared. CNN Business profiled Citizen, an app that uses people’s location data and public safety radio-band scanning to send tailored alerts about crimes and fires to users. The service is currently available in New York City, Baltimore, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. “What we have done, in essence, is open up the emergency response system from an information perspective,” Andrew Frame, Citizen’s cofounder and CEO told the news outlet.
Psychedelic Warlord. During his teenage years, U.S. presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke had been part of one of the oldest and most influential computer hacker groups, called the Cult of the Dead Cow. Reuters’ Joseph Menn published the scoop this week, a discovery he made while reporting for his upcoming book that chronicles the history of the hacker group. Apparently, O’Rourke stole long-distance phone service from telecom companies and wrote political essays under a pseudonym.