May 19, 2019

It’s Time for India to Face its E-Voting Problem

The unjustified arrest of Indian e-voting researcher Hari Prasad, while an ordeal for Prasad and his family, and an embarrassment to the Indian authorities, has at least helped to focus attention on India’s risky electronic voting machines (EVMs).

Sadly, the Election Commission of India, which oversees the country’s elections, is still sticking to its position that the machines are “perfect” and “fully tamperproof”, despite evidence to the contrary including convincing peer-reviewed research by Prasad and colleagues, not to mention the common-sense fact that no affordable electronic device can ever hope to be perfect or tamperproof. The Election Commission can no longer plausibly deny that EVM vulnerabilities exist. The time has come for India to have an honest, public conversation about how it votes.

The starting point for this discussion must be to recognize the vulnerabilities of EVMs. Like paper ballots, the ballots stored in an EVM are subject to tampering during and after the election, unless they are monitored carefully. But EVMs, unlike paper ballots, are also subject to tampering before the election, perhaps months or years in advance. Indeed, for many EVMs these pre-election vulnerabilities are the most serious problem.

So which voting system should India use? That’s a question for the nation to decide based on its own circumstances, but it appears there is no simple answer. The EVMs have problems, and old-fashioned paper ballots have their own problems. Despite noisy claims to the contrary from various sides, showing that one is imperfect does not prove that the other must be used. Most importantly, the debate must recognize that there are more than two approaches — for example, most U.S. jurisdictions are now moving to systems that combine paper and electronics, such as precinct-count optical scan systems in which the voter marks a paper ballot that is immediately read by an electronic scanner. Whether a similar system would work well for India remains an open question, but there are many options, including new approaches that haven’t been invented yet, and India will need to do some serious analysis to figure out what is best.

To find the best voting system for India, the Election Commission will need all of the help it can get from India’s academic and technical communities. It will especially need help from people like Hari Prasad. Getting Prasad out of jail and back to work in his lab would not only serve justice — which should be reason enough to free him — but would also serve the voters of India, who deserve a better voting system than they have.

My Experiment with "Digital Drugs"

The latest scare meme is “digital drugs” or “i-dosing”, in which kids listen to audio tracks that supposedly induce altered mental states. Concerned adults fear that these “digital drugs” may be a gateway to harder (i.e., actual) drugs. Rumors are circulating among some kids: “I heard it was like some weird demons and stuff through an iPod“. In a way, it’s a perfect storm of scare memes, involving (1) “drugs”, (2) the Internet, and (3) kids listening to freaky music.

When I heard about these “digital drugs”, I naturally had to try them, in the interest of science.

(All joking aside, I only did this because I knew it was safe and legal. I don’t like to mess with my brain. I rely on my brain to make my living. Without my brain, I’d be … a zombie, I guess.)

I downloaded a “digital drug” track, donned good headphones, lay down on my bed, closed my eyes, blanked my mind, and pressed “play”. What I heard was a kind of droning noise, accompanied by a soft background hiss. It was not unlike the sound of a turboprop airplane during post-takeoff ascent, with two droning engines and the soft hiss of a ventilation fan. This went on for about fifteen minutes, with the drone changing pitch every now and then. That was it.

Did this alter my consciousness? Not really. If anything, fifteen minutes of partial sensory deprivation (eyes closed, hearing nothing but droning and hissing) might have put me in a mild meditative state, but frankly I could have reached that state more easily without the infernal droning, just by lying still and blanking my mind.

Afterward I did some web surfing to try to figure out why people think these sounds might affect the brain. To the extent there is any science at all behind “digital drugs”, it involves playing sounds of slightly different frequencies into your two ears, thereby supposedly setting up a low-frequency oscillation in the auditory centers of your brain, which will supposedly interact with your brain waves that operate at a very similar frequency. This theory could be hooey for all I know, but it sounds kind of science-ish so somebody might believe it. I can tell you for sure that it didn’t work on me.

So, kids: don’t do digital drugs. They’re a waste of time. And if you don’t turn down the volume, you might actually damage your hearing.

Identifying Trends that Drive Technology

I’m trying to compile a list of major technological and societal trends that influence U.S. computing research. Here’s my initial list. Please post your own suggestions!

  • Ubiquitous connectivity, and thus true mobility
  • Massive computational capability available to everyone, through the cloud
  • Exponentially increasing data volumes – from ubiquitous sensors, from higher-volume sensors (digital imagers everywhere!), and from the creation of all information in digital form – has led to a torrent of data which must be transferred, stored, and mined: “data to knowledge to action”
  • Social computing – the way people interact has been transformed; the data we have from and about people is transforming
  • All transactions (from purchasing to banking to voting to health) are online, creating the need for dramatic improvements in privacy and security
  • Cybercrime
  • The end of single-processor performance increases, and thus the need for parallelism to increase performance in operating systems and productivity applications, not just high-end applications; also power issues
  • Asymmetric threats, need for surveillance, reconnaissance
  • Globalization – of innovation, of consumption, of workforce
  • Pressing national and global challenges: climate change, education, energy / sustainability, health care (these replace the cold war)

What’s on your list? Please post below!

[cross-posted from CCC Blog]