Tech-augmented democracy is about to get harder in this half-baked world

As we head towards November 2020, expect a crescendo of half-truths, deep fakes, and clatfart.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor
Image: Supplied/AEC

For the wondrous benefits the internet has brought, it is not without its drawbacks.

This has manifested itself in two ways when it comes to democracy: A headlong rush into internet voting and a shattering of the polity.

As a scientific critique on the act of voting, associate professor Vanessa Teague discussed electronic voting in her recent keynote at Linux.conf.au 2020.

Teague has more than enough experience in this area, and has been involved in finding flaws in the iVote system that is increasingly used in New South Wales, as well as the Scytl system used in Swiss elections that iVote is based on.

"I think there are some reasonable ways of doing electronic voting in a polling place ... but we just don't know how to do remote electronic voting properly in a way that really safeguards the election against manipulation [via] software bugs," Teague said last month.

The issue Teague sees with remote voting is subtle bugs, such as those involved in shuffling and verifying votes, which can undermine the security of the whole system.

"That's a little bit different from the occasional problems that happen in paper-based systems because you don't as a result of one little subtle problem hand over a capacity for total manipulation of all of the votes to one entity," she said.

"In summary, I think there are some reasonable ways of doing electronic voting in a polling place ... but we just don't know how to do remote electronic voting properly in a way that really safeguards the election against manipulation on software bugs."

More recently, the Iowa debacle was a fantastic mass warning of the troubles that can happen when bad technology is thrown into a situation without proper preparation and testing, as well as some old school clogging of a phone line.

In the end, there was a viable backup plan as the Democratic Party had everything on paper that it could later scrutinise, and no harm was done. The sorriest tale was watching TV news anchors fill hours of empty air by expressing disappointment that democracy might not be an instant process and demanding ready-to-go hot takes on live television.

At the same time that crackpot ideas like using blockchain to replace paper are being pushed -- usually without a single benefit other than costing lots of money and voters knowing results instantly; though they might not be verifiably correct, but you'll have them -- the internet has arguably had a more dangerous impact on the perceptions of voters.

For instance, as Australia burned through its black summer of 2019-20, a disinformation campaign claiming that the bushfires were the product of arsonists took off online.

All it took was a little climate denial, mixed in with some misguided media boosting, to create a situation where a former government minister stood up in the Australian Senate last week to repeat the rumours and innuendo that are provably wrong, as well as call for the powers of Australia's security agencies to be used.

"Should the Australian Signals Directorate be assisting in this regard to rule out -- or otherwise -- potential overseas components being held by eco-terrorists, noting that arsonists were active in California last year?" asked Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells on Tuesday.

"Have we reached the point where satellite surveillance metadata from our various national agencies need to be examined at the respective initial flashpoints as part of investigative resources and tools to assist in gathering evidence to prosecute those responsible?"

It would seem no amount of truth telling and correction would change the viewpoint of the senator from New South Wales, especially when it's possible to retreat into an information bubble of one's own making to seek reassurance that their beliefs are true and correct on the "proper" hashtags.

Democracies tend to not work well when it's simply two collectives yelling at each other, each armed with their own set of facts. This viewpoint used to be on the political fringes, but it has increasingly become the main game.

With each new event these days -- whether it be bushfires, coronavirus, or an election -- comes an accompanying amount of misinformation and deep faking.

The social networks claim that they are clamping down on misinformation, but lawmakers have already said their efforts are not enough -- and they won't be.

As the United States heads towards its November elections, there will be a crescendo of half truths, slick editing, and diversions. The democratic structures built in the last century and the one before can handle a little of it, but the current technology-enabled deluge is putting them under strain.

The Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. Since we run a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8:00am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6:00pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America.

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