Friday, November 23, 2012
E-voting: Efficient Democracy or Hacker’s Holy Grail?”
Our country recently experienced an extraordinary two weeks, encompassing Hurricane Sandy and the presidential election. This marriage of natural and political events brought a new level of prominence to the issue of electronic voting. New Jersey’s Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno encouraged residents displaced by the storm to vote via email, being treated as overseas voters. In New York State, where voters were allowed to cast their ballot at any polling place because of relocation, the State Board of Elections rejected e-voting, citing its susceptibility to fraud.
The contrasting views of e-voting by these bordering states similarly affected by Sandy reflect the issues surrounding its use on a national scale. Over 121 million Americans voted in the recent Presidential election; 3.5 million of them did so electronically. In a day and age when electronic services are so accessible and popular, can e-voting be securely used to facilitate the democratic process?
There are several types of e-voting, including computer-like touch screen voting machines and voting over email, typically available to overseas residents and military personnel. Some e-voting machines provide no paper record of the votes cast while others produce a record of each vote, providing a back up record if necessary. New Jersey residents who voted via email send a copy of their completed ballot via either email or fax and then mail in the original paper copy as soon as possible.
Many Americans wonder why more states have yet to implement online voting as people perform common, secure tasks online, such as paying their taxes, shopping and banking. Experts have conflicting viewpoints on what is an acceptable and secure model for protecting Americans votes. Many in the technology realm, including security experts, hackers, and cryptologists, challenge the security of current e-voting technology. Groups such as Verified Voting and Common Cause monitor the security of e-voting. Along with the Rutgers University Law School, these two groups recently published a paper citing numerous problems that currently exist with the e-voting methods and machines in America.
They argue that despite the obvious benefits, e-voting has had several notable incidents of failure. The U.S. military attempted to create an online voting system for service members stationed overseas known as the Secure Electronic Registration and Voting Experiment (SERVE). However, this project was abandoned as a result of numerous security flaws.
Another example of a system failure was in Washington, D.C. Prior to launching, District officials invited the public to try to hack into the system. Within 36 hours, hackers gained complete control of the system and were able to switch votes and even made a song play once voters submitted their electronic ballots.
Experts also say that the hardware on some e-voting machines can pose security problems. In one experiment, security specialists revealed how some e-voting machines could be altered and controlled remotely using a few cheap and simple computer parts and a paper clip. Tampering with hardware becomes even more of a threat when expanded early voting practices have put votes on machines stored in schools, churches and other polling places for weeks before Election Day.
Others believe that every state should use e-voting because this new method would increase voter turnout, lessen the time and burden of traditional voting, and instantly and accurately report results. Everyone Counts, a company that creates e-voting machines and technology, cites the successful use of iPad voting in a local election in Oregon last year. They argue that the dangers and “hacking” incidents sighted by opponents are over reported and therefore the threat seems larger than it actually is. “Cyber the Vote” is a voting blog from a former IBM IT employee. It advocates that e-voting can substantially help the voting process by eliminating human error in the vote counting process, preventing future “hanging chad” situations. E–voting could also facilitate any last minute changes to the ballot. Proponents urge more states to embrace e-voting because it would be impracticable to wait for all possible problems to be eliminated as the traditional paper ballot system has inherent flaws.
Hopefully it will not take another Superstorm for states to cast a clear decision on the place of e-voting in the American democracy. The question remains if the benefits of quicker voting and increased turnout outweigh the potential risks of security and fraud. Other countries, including Canada, Sweden and Switzerland, successfully use e-voting systems; perhaps the move to e-voting will happen over time with our country’s voting system.
Sunday, October 07, 2012
A Blessing or a Curse: Microsoft’s New Default “Do Not Track” System
Edited on: Sunday, October 07, 2012 5:30 PM
Categories: Business, Computers, Entertainment, Event, Internet, Legislation
Microsoft’s newest operating software, Windows 8, is scheduled for release to consumers in October. But this time around, Microsoft has changes in place that will affect more than just PC consumers. Internet Explorer Version 10, which will premiere with Windows 8, has the attention of major companies, including Google and Facebook, advertisers, and the average Internet user.
Internet Explorer 10, just as other Internet browsers like Firefox and Safari, will have a “do not track” option for users. This option allows users to choose whether or not they want their online activities to be tracked, documented, and studied by companies that will use the data to tailor advertisements to the user based on their interests, habits, and projected needs. But it is the way Microsoft plans on implementing the “do not track” option that has caused such an upset: in IE 10, the option will be automatically enabled, and the user will have to customize the settings to turn this preference “off” if they wish to allow companies to track their online behavior.
Online advertising has become a $300 billion dollar industry, thanks to its effective ability to target consumers with ads that are relevant to the consumer’s desires. Because of the high-level of tailoring available in online advertising, it has become one of the most popular choices for companies both large and small, as it is cost-efficient. This is all made practical by data exchanges, which target users with cookies. Companies that compile this data and sell it to potential advertisers depend on users not opting out of the tracking system; the less data there is to track and analyze, the less effective their advertising becomes. Most users do not go to the trouble of “activating” the “do not track” option on their browser (figure estimated at 11%), and companies take advantage of this. Companies fear that with a default “do not track” option automatically enabled, even fewer users will go to the trouble of “de-activating” the “do not track” option, and the companies and online advertising will fall apart.
Microsoft is only one piece of the “do not track” puzzle. However, their choice to implement the automatic “do not track” option may begin a sort of domino effect. The FTC has already recommended that all browsers give consumers the “do not track” option; this has caused Google Chrome to just recently add the feature. But with Microsoft’s move, the FTC might see the “do not track” option as not going far enough to protect consumers, and require all browsers to make “do not track” the default setting. Other browsers may simply follow suit in order to retain customers, if consumers are attracted to Microsoft’s “pro-privacy” stand and other browsers need to maintain a competitive edge.
Some enraged data tracking companies are threatening to not honor default “do not track” preferences. The industry is self-regulated, and a user selecting “do not track” only alerts the data companies that the consumer does not wish their activities to be tracked, allowing the companies to decide how to respond. This could lead to lawsuits over what “do not track” actually means, and how these companies can be regulated to properly satisfy consumers who wish to “not be tracked” by default.
If “do not track” becomes the standard default due to competitive forces or mandated by legislation, the effects for the Internet as we know it could be devastating. The bottom would fall out of online advertising, and online companies that make their money solely from advertising could crumble. Websites might then be forced to charge users for access, depriving many of the free services that are currently available, because they have no revenue from advertising. Every site may only allow access after each user has specifically agreed to “opt in” to tracking, causing a slew of complications for users that desire easy-access and legal issues for the site itself.
Or perhaps, consumers will simply take the time to set their preferences to “tracking on,” realizing the benefits that tailored online advertising provides them as well as advertising companies. But it seems unlikely that the average Internet user, influenced by the hype surrounding “pro-privacy,” would go out of his or her way to opt-in to tracking, with slogans of “Big Brother” filling the minds of the masses. “Do not track” legislation, predictably on its way, could prove devastating to the Internet as it works today.
Friday, March 11, 2011
Japanese Nuclear Emergency Response
An 8.9 magnitude earthquake (the 5th largest earthquake ever recorded) struck Japan last night northeast of the island of Honshu. The quake unleashed a massive tsunami into the Japanese seaboard. As the sun rose in the land of the rising sun this morning, the full extent of the damage and devastation was still being ascertained. Even by the most cautious estimates, a horrible human tragedy occurred: hundreds are believed to be dead and many more have lost their homes.
Potentially making matters worse, the quake damaged several nuclear power plants, forcing officials to declare a nuclear emergency. Officials shutdown at least four reactors along Honshu’s eastern seaboard: Onagawa, Fukushima Daiichi, Fukushima Daini, and Tokai (see the map above). Some reports indicate that as many as eleven reactors have experienced shutdowns. This has left many residents, quite literally, in the dark.
Japan is the third largest producer of nuclear energy in the world, behind the United States and France and generates 30% of its power using nuclear power from 53 reactors (despite being the only country in the world to have witnessed firsthand the damage that nuclear energy is capable of when unleashed via a nuclear bomb). Japan’s lack of natural energy reserves and reliance upon foreign imports is expected to lead to an ever increasing reliance on nuclear power in the future. Some estimates find Japan generating 50% of its power from nuclear energy by 2030.
Japan sits on an area of rampant seismic activity and the nuclear commission pays especially close attention to the possibilities of earthquakes in the siting, design and construction of nuclear power plants. Japanese regulations require plants to be built on hard rock foundations to minimize shaking. Additionally, all Japanese plants are equipped with seismic detectors that trigger an immediate reactor shutdown when a large earthquake occurs. The standards issued for seismic resistance of plants were adopted in 1978 and amended in 2001. The regulations specify requirements in terms of localized ground motion (measured in Gal.) as opposed to the more familiar Richter Scale because there is not always a correlation between amount of energy released (what the Richter Scale measures) and the amount of ground motion locally (what actually causes damage). Still, the NSC concluded that under current guidelines, Japanese plants could survive a quake with a magnitude of 7.75 on the Richter Scale. Today’s tragedy isn’t the first occasion that a nuclear plant in Japan faced a forced shutdown because of seismic activities – for example, the largest plant in the world at Kashiwazi-Kariwa was shut down in 2007 in the wake of a an earthquake measuring 6.8 on the Richter scale.
Under the regulatory policies developed by the Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan (similar to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the United States), the central nuclear emergency response headquarters (NERHQ) issues the nuclear emergency declaration with technical assistance from the Nuclear Safety Commission. The declaration is analogous to a declaration of federal emergency in the United States. In a nuclear emergency situation, a joint council is formed that includes the National Government’s representatives from NERHQ, senior nuclear emergency response specialists, and representatives of the Nuclear Safety Commission. The joint council devices an overall plan, provides instructions for resident evacuations, guides emergency services, and directs the armed forces. Under the current emergency order, 3,000 residents have been evacuated near the Fukishima plant.
It seems that the highly engineered plants in large part resisted the damaging effects of the quake. Current reports indicate that the plants have not leaked any radiation and remain in fairly good shape. My only hope is that these emergency response agencies do an effective job of dealing with repairing and reactivating the damaged nuclear plants and restoring power to residents. Other than that, there isn’t much to say besides: our thoughts and prayers go out to the residents of Japan.
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