Iowa Screams: Don’t Trust High-Tech Elections!

Views: 408

For years — actually for decades — those of us in the Computer Science community who study election systems have with almost total unanimity warned against the rise of electronic voting, Internet voting, and more recently smartphone/app-based voting systems. I and my colleagues have written and spoken on this topic many times. Has anyone really been listening? Apparently very few!

We have pointed out repeatedly the fundamental problems that render high-tech election systems untrustworthy — much as “backdoors” to strong encryption systems are flawed at foundational levels.

Without a rigorous “paper trail” to backup electronic votes, knowing for sure when an election has been hacked is technically impossible. Even with a paper trail, getting authorities to use it can be enormously challenging. Hacking contests against proposed e-voting systems are generally of little value, since the most dangerous attackers won’t participate in those — they’ll wait for the real elections to do their undetectable damage!

Of course it doesn’t help when the underlying voting models are just this side of insane. Iowa’s caucuses have become a confused mess on every level. Caucuses throughout the U.S. should have been abandoned years ago. They disenfranchise large segments of the voting population who don’t have the ability to spend so much time engaged in a process that can take hours rather than a few minutes to cast their votes. Not only should the Democratic party have eliminated caucuses, it should no longer permit tiny states whose demographics are wholly unrepresentative of the party — and of the country as a whole — to be so early in the primary process. 

In the case of Iowa (and it would have been Nevada too, but they’ve reportedly abandoned plans to use the same flawed app) individual voters weren’t using their smartphones to vote, but caucus locations — almost 1700 of them in Iowa — were supposed to use the app (that melted down) to report their results. And of course the voice phone call system that was designated to be the reporting backup — the way these reports had traditionally been made — collapsed under the strain when the app-based system failed.

Some areas in the U.S. are already experimenting with letting larger and larger numbers of individual voters use their smartphones and apps to vote. It seems so obvious. So simple. They just can’t resist. And they’re driving their elections at 100 miles an hour right toward a massive brick wall.

Imagine — just imagine! — what the reactions would be during a national election if problems like Iowa’s occurred then on a much larger scale, especially given today’s toxic conspiracy theories environment. 

It would be a nuclear dumpster fire of unimaginable proportions. The election results would be tied up in courts for days, weeks, months — who knows?

We can’t take that kind of risk. Or if we do, we’re idiots and deserve the disaster that is likely to result.

Make your choice.

–Lauren–

How Some Software Designers Don’t Seem to Care About the Elderly

Views: 4611

One of the most poignant ironies of the Internet is that at the very time that it’s become increasingly difficult for anyone to conduct their day to day lives without using the Net, some categories of people are increasingly being treated badly by many software designers. The victims of these attitudes include various special needs groups — visually and/or motor impaired are just two examples — but the elderly are a particular target.

Working routinely with extremely elderly persons who are very active Internet users (including in their upper 90s!), I’m particularly sensitive to the difficulties that they face keeping their Net lifelines going. 

Often they’re working on very old computers, without the resources (financial or human) to permit them to upgrade. They may still be running very old, admittedly risky OS versions and old browsers — Windows 7 is going to be used by many for years to come, despite hitting its official “end of life” for updates a few days ago.

Yet these elderly users are increasing dependent on the Net to pay bills (more and more firms are making alternatives increasingly difficult and in some cases expensive), to stay in touch with friends and loved ones, and for many of the other routine purposes for which all of us now routinely depend on these technologies.

This is a difficult state of affairs, to say the least.

There’s an aspect of this that is even worse. It’s attitudes! It’s the attitudes of many software designers that suggest they apparently really don’t care about this class of users much — or at all.

They design interfaces that are difficult for these users to navigate. Or in extreme cases, they simply drop support for many of these users entirely, by eliminating functionality that permits their old systems and old browsers to function. 

We can certainly stipulate that using old browsers and old operating systems is dangerous. In a perfect world, resources would be available to get everyone out of this situation.

However, we don’t exist in a perfect world, and these users, who are already often so disadvantaged in so many other ways, need support from software designers, not disdain or benign neglect.

A current example of these users being left behind is the otherwise excellent, open source “Discourse” forum software. I use this software myself, and it’s a wonderful project.

Recently they announced that they would be pulling all support for Internet Explorer (except for limited read-only access) from the Discourse software. Certainly they are not the only site or project dropping support for old browsers, but this fact does not eliminate the dilemma.

I despise Internet Explorer. And yes, old computers running old OS versions and old browsers represent security risks to their users. Definitely. No question about it. Yet what of the users who don’t understand how to upgrade? Who don’t have anyone to help them upgrade? Are we to tell them that they matter not at all? Is the plan to try ignore them as much as possible until they’re all dead and gone? Newsflash: This category of users will always exist!

This issue rose to the top of my morning queue today when I saw a tweet from Jeff Atwood (@codinghorror). Jeff is the force behind the creation and evolution of Discourse, and was a co-founder of Stack Exchange. He does seriously good work.

Yet this morning we engaged in the following tweet thread:

Jeff: At this point I am literally counting the days until we can fully remove IE11 support in @discourse (June 1st 2020)

Lauren: I remain concerned about the impact this will have on already marginalized users on old systems without the skills or help to switch to other browsers. They have enough problems already!

Jeff: Their systems are so old they become extremely vulnerable to hackers and exploits, which is bad for their health and the public health of everyone else near them. It becomes an anti-vaccination argument, in which nobody wins.

Lauren: Do you regularly work with extremely elderly people whose only lifelines are their old computers? Serious question.

Somewhere around this point, he closed down the dialogue by blocking me on Twitter.

This was indeed his choice, but seems a bit sad when I actually had more fruitful discussions of this matter previously on the main Discourse discussion forum itself.

Of course his anti-vaxx comparison is inherently flawed. There are a variety of programs to help people — who can’t otherwise afford important vaccinations — to receive them. By comparison, vast numbers of elderly persons (often living in isolation) are on their own when dealing with their computers.

The world will keep spinning after Discourse drops IE support.

Far more important though than this particular case is the attitude being expressed by so many in the software community, an attitude that suggests that many highly capable software engineers don’t really appreciate these users and the kinds of problems that many of these users may have, that can prevent them from making even relatively simple changes or upgrades to their systems — which they need to keep using as much as anyone — in the real world. 

And that’s an unnecessary tragedy.

–Lauren–

The Right’s (and Left’s) Insane Internet Content Power Grab

Views: 2086

Rumors are circulating widely — and some news sources claim to have seen actual drafts — of a possible Trump administration executive order aimed at giving the government control over content at large social media and other major Internet platforms. 

This effort is based on one of the biggest lies of our age — the continuing claims mostly from the conservative right (but also from some elements of the liberal left) that these firms are using politically biased decisions to determine which content is inappropriate for their platforms. That lie is largely based on the false premise that it’s impossible for employees of these firms to separate their personal political beliefs from content management decisions.

In fact, there is no evidence of political bias in these decisions at these firms. It is completely appropriate for these firms to remove hate speech and related attacks from their platforms — most of which does come from the right (though not exclusively so). Nazis, KKK, and a whole array of racist, antisemitic, anti-Muslim, misogynistic, and other violent hate groups are disproportionately creatures of the political right wing. 

So it is understandable that hate speech and related content takedowns would largely affect the right — because they’re the primary source of these postings and associated materials. 

At the scales that these firms operate, no decision-making ecosystem can be 100% accurate, and so errors will occur. But that does not change the underlying reality that the “political bias” arguments are false. 

The rumored draft Trump executive order would apparently give the FCC and FTC powers to determine if these firms were engaging in “inappropriate censorship” — the primary implied threat appears to be future changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which broadly protects these (and other) firms and individuals from liability for materials that other parties post to their sites. In fact, 230 is effectively what makes social media possible in the first place, since without it the liability risks of allowing users to post anything publicly would almost certainly be overwhelming. 

But wait, it gets worse!

At the same time that these political forces are making the false claims that content is taken down inappropriately from these sites for political purposes, governments and politicians are also demanding — especially in the wake of recent mass shootings — that these firms immediately take down an array of violent postings and similar content. The reality that (for example) such materials may be posted only minutes before shootings occur, and may be widely re-uploaded by other users in an array of formats after the fact, doesn’t faze the politicians and others making these demands, who apparently either don’t understand the enormous scale on which these firms operate, or simply don’t care about such truths when they get in the way of politicians’ political pandering.

The upshot of all this is an insane situation — demands that offending material be taken down almost instantly, but also demands that no material be taken down inappropriately. Even with the best of AI algorithms and a vast human monitoring workforce, these dual demands are in fundamental conflict. Individually, neither are practical. Taken together, they are utterly impossible.

Of course, we know what’s actually going on. Many politicians on both the right and left are desperate to micromanage the Net, to control it for their own political and personal purposes. For them, it’s not actually about protecting users, it’s mostly about protecting themselves. 

Here in the U.S., the First Amendment guarantees that any efforts like Trump’s will trigger an orgy of court battles. For Trump himself, this probably doesn’t matter too much — he likely doesn’t really care how these battles turn out, so long as he’s managed to score points with his base along the way. 

But the broader risks of such strategies attacking the Internet are enormously dangerous, and Republicans who might smile today about such efforts would do well to imagine similar powers in the hands of a future Democratic administration. 

Such governmental powers over Internet content are far too dangerous to be permitted to the administrations of any party. They are anathema to the very principles that make the Internet great. They must not be permitted to take root under any circumstances.

–Lauren–

Another Breach: What Capital One Could Have Learned from Google’s “BeyondCorp”

Views: 3405

Another day, another massive data breach. This time some 100 million people in the U.S., and more millions in Canada. Reportedly the criminal hacker gained access to data stored on Amazon’s AWS systems. The fault was apparently not with AWS, but with a misconfigured firewall associated with Capital One, the bank whose credit card customers and card applicants were the victims of this attack.

Firewalls can be notoriously and fiendishly difficult to configure correctly, and often present a target-rich environment for successful attacks. The thing is, firewall vulnerabilities are not headline news — they’re an old story, and better solutions to providing network security already exist.

In particular, Google’s “BeyondCorp” approach (https://cloud.google.com/beyondcorp) is something that every enterprise involved in computing should make itself familiar with. Right now!

BeyondCorp techniques are how Google protects its own internal networks and systems from attack, with enormous success. In a nutshell, BeyondCorp is a set of practices that effectively puts “zero trust” in the networks themselves, moving access control and other authentication elements to individual devices and users. This eliminates traditional firewalls (and in nearly all instances, VPNs) because there is no longer any need for such devices or systems that, once breached, give an attacker access to internal goodies.

If Capital One had been following BeyondCorp principles, there’d likely be 100+ million fewer potentially panicky people today.

–Lauren–

Earthquakes vs. Darth Vader

Views: 803

When the Ridgecrest earthquake reached L.A. yesterday evening (no damage this far from the epicenter from that quake or the one the previous day) I was “in” a moving elevator under attack in the “Vader Immortal” Oculus Quest VR simulation. I didn’t realize that there was a quake at all, everything seemed part of the VR experience (haptic feedback in the hand controllers was already buzzing my arms at the time).

The only oddity was that I heard a strange clinking sound, that at the time had no obvious source but that I figured was somehow part of the simulation. Actually, it was probably the sound of ceiling fan knob chains above me hitting the glass light bulb fixtures as the fan was presumably swaying a bit.

Quakes of this sort are actually very easy to miss if you’re not sitting or standing quietly (I barely felt the one the previous day and wasn’t immediately sure that it was a quake), but I did find my experience last night to be rather amusing in retrospect.

By the way, “Vader Immortal” — and the Quest itself — are very, very cool, very much 21st century “sci-fi” tech finally realized. My thanks to Oculus for sending me a Quest for my experiments.

–Lauren–