Saturday, January 27, 2007

Technofacism and the Rise of The Machines

Robert Kennedy Jr’s recent article in Rolling Stone magazine, coming on the heels of a report out of Princeton University questioning the defensiblity of the Diebold electronic Accuvote-TS voting machine, has once again thrust electronic voting into the public eye.

While reading Rolling Stone, I learned that Robert Kennedy Jr believes that the Diebold machines may have cost the Democrats the Ohio 2004 election. Based on analysis by staticians, he believes that Diebold significantly influenced the outcome of elections in Florida during the same period.

Now, this is the first time I’ve read Rolling Stone in years, and I’ll be honest, while I enjoyed the Jack Nicholson article, I didn’t entirely buy the article on Diebold. After reading it, and after viewing Diebold’s rebuttal of the article on their web site (in which Diebold makes the rather damning counter-claim that “zero” Accuvote-TS machines were deployed in the state of Ohio and the three Florida counties mentioned during the 2004 election), I found myself less concerned with what is going on *right now*, compared to what *might* happen in a theoretical future, once electronic voting becomes the dominant method of voting.

I found myself musing on the futue of machine-aided democracy - and our ability to safeguard our rights in the face of unauditable election results, potential software vulnerabilities, and power-hungry politicians - or combinations thereof. Because one possible outcome of a software-based, non-auditable system that lacks strong centralized control and oversight capabilities is “Terminator”-style governance, or “technofascism”: government by the man that owns the machines.

A quick recap: In the technofascist future depicted in Terminator 3, a network of machines (SkyNet), backed initially by an evil entrepreneur, has coopted governance of human decisions and assets (including most of the better-looking weapons of the day) and is preparing the rest of the humans to face their “Judgement Day”.

Only a small band of human rebels living “off the grid”, disconnected from the SkyNet network controlled by the machines, remain undetected and functional. Protected by anonymity (and a Cyborg 101 “whistle-blower” from the future), they battle the SkyNet machines and eventually destroy the machines by attacking their central command and control infrastructure. Humanity is saved, along with the rights of the individual.

In the curious world of electronic voting, a “prequel” version of this story is emerging. This story doesn’t end with “Judgement Day”, it starts with “Election Day”. Instead of humans living “off the grid” in order to avoid being “controlled”, it’s the machines that are “off the grid” and unaudited - their operating systems (and patches, and backers) invisible to the voters, and in some instances, invisible even to government.

In this movie, rather than the humans, it is the machines that emerge the winners - because, by avoiding the auditors and other controlling mechanisms, and removing the traditional “ink and paper” checks and balances, the machines are in a position to erode the centralized command and control infrastructure of the humans, and render democracy “invisible”, resulting in a technofascist government run by the man that owns the machines.

Okay, stop the melodrama, I hear you say. This story just isn’t plausible. No men, nor any amount of machines they control, will *ever* be in a position to take control over America’s vast weapons cache, natural resources, market-leading economy, 300 million people, and $52 trillion in household wealth (Forbes). Write a useful post next time - because this will never happen.

My answer to this, is: you’re almost certainly right. There will probably never come a day when a group of businessmen, fueled by lust for money or political power, will use billions of dollars to corner a market, then take over a system by 1) coopting a previously-trusted central authority, 2) walking around the audit mechanisms, and 3) exploiting hidden systems, including backdoors built into well-distributed software and operating systems.

None of that is ever likely to happen.

No comments: