Beware the vendor/technologist offering a panacea

Spending much of my career being called upon to evaluate various new technology, my experience is that many get the applicability and time frames wrong. In the early eighties I was assigned to evaluate personal computer technologies.  In general, corporations thought they were late to the table in applying personal computers. In retrospect most were pretty much on time with evaluating the technology.  I was called into my boss’s office in the summer of 1985 – higher ups had decided to pursue artificial intelligence in a big way, they did not want to be late, I would lead the effort.  Its over thirty years and over the last few years some really good applications have been implemented.  Maybe we don’t notice so much, but voice simulation and recognition were initially though next to impossible.  We are still hearing about AI breakthroughs coming soon.  I am sure they have been and will continue.  So it is and continues to be with various technologies such as database, data communications, email, voice mail, and the Internet.

The general public, legislators, business people, and many technologists – all of us – often miss-estimate the potential and applicability of technologies.  I remember in 2004, my congressman, told an audience we did not have to worry about electronic voting because of encryption.

The latest “new” technology is Blockchains, the technology that underlies BitCoin.  It has some valuable applicability, yet I suspect  not that much.  There was a recent Newshour show, (15min in) a Blockchain Caucus in the U.S. House, this recent article that claims election panacea status Blockchain voting app puts democracy in the hands of the people <read>

BITCOIN changed the way we think about money forever. Now a type of political cryptocurrency wants to do the same for votes, reinventing how we participate in democracy.

Sovereign is being unveiled this week by Democracy Earth, a not-for-profit organisation in Palo Alto, California. It combines liquid democracy – which gives individuals more flexibility in how they use their votes – with blockchains, digital ledgers of transactions that keep cryptocurrencies like bitcoin secure. Sovereign’s developers hope it could signal the beginning of a democratic system that transcends national borders.

“There’s an intrinsic incompatibility between the internet and nation states,” says Santiago Siri, one of Democracy Earth’s co-founders. “If we’re going to think about digital governance, we need to think in a borderless, global way.”

The basic concept of liquid democracy is that voters can express their wishes on an issue directly or delegate their vote to someone else they think is better-placed to decide on their behalf. In turn, those delegates can also pass those votes upwards through the chain. Crucially, users can see how their delegate voted and reclaim their vote to use themselves.

This is not the first claim we have heard that blockchains can solve the ills of electronic voting.  It won’t be the last.  The antidote to going overboard is understanding the natural tendency to get it wrong, look for panaceas, and knowledge. Take this from our friends at Free and Fair: BLOCKCHAINS AND ELECTIONS  <read>

As people and companies seek new ways to conduct elections that make better sense in our high tech world, several startups have proposed using blockchains, or even Bitcoin itself, to conduct elections.

Using Bitcoin (or a blockchain) as an election system is a bad idea that really doesn’t make sense. While blockchains can be useful in the election process, they are only appropriate for use in one small part of a larger election system…

Using blockchains for voting has been considered by academics for decades, but only as a thought experiment. If you ask any cryptographer who knows the basics of cryptocurrencies (remember, blockchains were invented by cryptographers) if elections should be conducted using blockchains, they would laugh and say, “Hell no, that doesn’t even make sense!” While blockchains are great at securely storing information, they do literally nothing to solve the many, many challenges that elections face, like the necessity for voter anonymity, the ability to determine that only eligible voters cast votes, that only legal votes are tabulated, and that ballots and ballot boxes cannot be manipulated by anyone, etc… and the list goes on. Blockchains do nothing to address any of these critical issues.

We do believe blockchains can be useful.  But like many technologies they are not a panacea.  There will be applicability, yet I would not expect much from a bitchain caucus and hope my representative spends his time elsewhere.  Yet, I could always be wrong.



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