Saturday, February 26, 2011

Hacking the election


I am far from the first one to consider this, so I do not mean to come across as falsely prescient.  Here goes...
The blizzard snow has melted here in Chicago and I have resumed nominal dog walking duties.  A great many of the topics I write about here at Strange Horizons and elsewhere come from this chore.  Me and the dogs stroll around, the smells of muddy ground and SUV exhaust filling our nostrils, and I pass the time by musing.  Here is my musing from this morning:

Politics is always in the news.  Regardless of what portion of the political spectrum your views land you upon, odds are that you're not happy about something.  That's just how it is.  If you're not outraged about at least one aspect of our democracy, then you're unaware (how dare you), or a nihilist (I can empathize), or you just plain don't watch TV (can't blame you.)  In order to encourage more voting during elections and thereby (hopefully) grow a sense of involvement within people, Internet voting has been proposed.
That's right.  Vote from the comfort of your own home and at a time of your convenience, during set voting hours of course.  Kinda like American Idol...which come to think of it, our typical presidential and congressional campaign seasons are becoming more and more akin to each year.  Anyway, you may one day be able to capriciously vote away on your home computer for the strawman of your choice, theoretically robbing you of the old excuses for not getting to a polling place.  The technology to do this exists.  We could one day implement it.

And what if we did?  There is no such thing as an utterly secure computer system.  It's similar in fact to home security.  The only things that will keep a thief from breaking into your home are laziness and visibility.  In other words, how many hurdles they have to overcome and how likely they are to be caught while doing it.  The same goes for hackers. 
How does this open the electoral process to hacking?  We know for a fact that elections have been rigged before and suspect it in certain other cases.  How far removed from reality is the notion of political parties succeeding or failing based upon how adept their programmers are at hacking code?  And how would cybernetics affect this process?  In earlier posts, I've spoken about the concept of candidates having interfaces that feed them realtime data on audience reaction to a speech or debate.  I believe Neal Stephenson, Bruce Sterling, or both have written on that theoretical concept.  Actually, this is all beginning to sound rather Philip K. Dick, yet more paranoid.  If that could actually happen, that is.
I'm encouraged by how technology could broaden the electoral process in our democracy.  I'm also all-too aware of how it might plunge us even deeper than we are into corruption.
In other cheery news, a "monster" solar storm has erupted on the Sun.  The byproducts of which should be on the way to this planet as I write this.  Astronomers classified the occurrence as a Class M3.6 Solar Storm, which is about midway between "weenie" and "honkin'" to use non-scientific parlance.  While it is true that the Sun has entered a sector of an eleven-year cycle where flares are more prominent, at least "the powers that be" are finally beginning to take the affects of massive solar storms into consideration.  Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said this last week:

"This is not a matter of if, it's simply a matter of when and how big," Lubchenco said of the potential for a dangerous solar flare. "We have every reason to expect we're going to be seeing more space weather in the coming years, and it behooves us to be smart and be prepared."

Preach it, sister.  The pitfalls of computerized voting don't mean much if the whole grid goes down from a solar storm.

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