Needed: a healthy sense of skepticism about large technology projects

Bruce Schneier recently linked to an interesting article about the failure of a project to implement city-wide surveillance cameras in New Orleans, Louisiana.  The project started in 2004 and since then netted a total of three convictions due to crimes caught on camera.

(It may not be clear on first glance at the article, but the three convictions for corruption were relating to the implementation of the surveillance camera project itself! Just in case you didn’t get that: the existence of the project enabled three crimes to be committed.)

NBN, take note.  This was a much less ambitious project, yet abysmally failed due to pork-barrelling and executives with poor character.  I hope the Australian public does not expect that we can sustain major government technology and infrastructure projects without both massive waste due to profiteering by vendors and contractors, and severe detrimental effects on the balance of trade due to those vendors and contractors being held by overseas interests.

I can’t help but think that a better alternative is to provide large tax incentives for private companies (especially overseas companies) investing in Australian infrastructure projects, and supporting (through tax incentives, grants, and possibly other avenues) research and development by Australian companies into technologies that can more efficiently satisfy our nation’s needs for communications technology.


Ohio Secretary of State on electronic voting machines


COLUMBUS, Ohio – Ohio’s electronic voting systems have “critical security failures” which could impact the integrity of elections in the Buckeye State, according to a review of the systems commissioned by Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner.

“The results underscore the need for a fundamental change in the structure of Ohio’s election system to ensure ballot and voting system security while still making voting convenient and accessible to all Ohio voters, “ Secretary Brunner said Friday in unveiling the report.

“In an era of computer-based voting systems, voters have a right to expect that their voting system is at least as secure as the systems they use for banking and communication,” she said.

If that isn’t seriously underrepresenting voters’ rights and expectations, i don’t know what to call it. With banking and communications systems there are appropriate failure modes. If an EFTPOS line goes down, we can pay cash, or use a manual credit card transaction. If someone steals my credit card details and uses them to buy things online, my liability is limited to $50 if i can demonstrate that i follow appropriate security practices. If my vote goes astray due to accidental or malicious electronic errors at the polling booth, no amount of recounts can fix it. The only failure mode is a by-election, which people generally see as undesirable.

While democracy has its warts, it’s better than all of the other systems out there. (I’m sure Winston Churchill had a wittier version of that statement…) In my involvement with the last federal election, i discovered that there are a lot of things that make our democracy here in Australia a little less democratic than it should be (like who buys the best media coverage). Electronic voting machines magnify this possibility way out of proportion by raising the possibility that an entire election could be hijacked by an inside job, or, in a worst-case scenario, by a remote exploit. Anyone who cares the slightest amount about freedom should oppose vigorously any use of electronic voting systems without paper records and verification mechanisms.

(As an aside, electronic counting systems for paper ballots would offer huge speed and handling improvements, and could be easily manually checked.)