Open Source Voting is demonstrated at the 2009 Linux Expo in L.A.
In the spring of 2008, after years of getting p.o.'d at Microsoft on almost a daily basis, I switched over to Linux (free, non-proprietary software). I had just gotten a new computer, and a friend who was setting it up for me, offered Linux as an option. This seemed a bit risky since Linux sounded less user-friendly than Microsoft, and I am not a technically-savvy person. Yet I loved the idea of being free of Microsoft and proprietary software. I took a chance and went with Linux.
In the ensuing year, my computer sessions became markedly less stressful--it was usually at zero. (Unfortunately, I now find myself beset with problems because of my internet service, Time-Warner. Living in a secluded area, my options for high-speed internet are pretty limited.)
Not only did my friend install Linux for me, but he explained how to use it--which didn't take long. Some of my existing hardware, such as my digital camera, works somewhat differently with Linux, but generally, everything is vastly more carefree and simple than with Microsoft. Of course, some of my CD-ROMS aren't compatible with non-proprietary software, but the pros have by far outweighed the cons.
On February 19th of this year, I attended the 2009 Linux Expo in L.A. Below are conversations I had with a few of the vendors.
Electronic Frontiers Foundation
“We're a digital civil liberties group, and we're working to protect your civil rights in the electronic frontier,” Bassett explained.
“We do most of our work through impact litigation, so we take on kind of high-profile legal cases that we think will have settlements with very far reach. One of our longest ongoing cases is against AT&T for illegal domestic spying. We had somebody come into our office and give schematics of what he thinks is a giant splitter that splits traffic at the AT&T offices. One copy goes to the internet, the other copy goes to the NSA. Of course, all of this is alleged. The case is still going on in the courts. Basically the NSA has told us that 'you can't sue AT&T unless you can prove that the NSA has tapped your internet access, and we can't tell you whether or not we did because it's a state secret.' So that kind of is where that case stopped, and then we started a different case against the NSA. You can read more about it at eff.org/nsa.
“One of our other cases, that we just started, is a DMCA exemption iPhone jailbreakers. We're trying to make it legal for iPhone owners to jailbreak their phones so that they can use it on T-Mobile to encourage competition across cell phone carriers and also so that they can install any apps that they want. They shouldn't be limited by the App Store [Apple-approved apps]. Currently, every app for the iPhone has filtered through Apple and is available through the Apps Store. So developers, such as the great people here at SCALE [Southern California Linux Expo], have to go through this rigid process to get their apps on the Apps Store. There are some great apps that Apple refuses to approve. So we think that it should be legal for people to jailbreak their phones to use whatever apps they want and to really create their own apps, to foster creativity and innovation in the iPhone world and in the phone world in general.” (More at: http://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2009/02/south-park-iphone-app-denied.)”
Free Software Foundation
”Our eventual goal is the elimination of all proprietary software. We start with educating users, and we understand that not everyone is ready to go whole hog, but there's a lot more out there, I think, than people are aware of. There is an entirely free operating system, there is a lot of free software out there.
”I would recommend our directory at directory.fsf.org. Every piece of software in there is free; it's approaching 6,000 projects; and there's links for links for downloading all kinds of stuff. It's sorted by what it does and where you plug it in to your system. It's great, there are programs that don't exist in the proprietary software world, there's like three different programs for organizing your wine cellar; there's a very popular program for managing your veterinary office; there's Gnutrition, the nutrition program. And the great thing is that all that is free software.”
“. . . We're a nonprofit organization dedicated to computer user freedom. We have the Gnu project which had a 25th anniversary last year. The GNU code is what works with the Linux kernel to make the operating systems that people are using: Debian, Fedora, SuSE, Ubuntu, gNewSense is the one that we brought with us today, all use the GNU code with the Linux kernel.
“We're also responsible for the General Public License. So we authored the GPL (General Public License), which was updated just a little while ago to Version 3. That's the free software license that insures that free software remains free.
“The way that GPL works is if I wrote a piece of code [and] licensed my code under the general public license, you could use any of that code that you wanted for any purpose. You could modify it, you could redistribute it, you could share it with your neighbor as long as your code also comes under the GPL. So I shared with you with the caveat that you share back.
”Having celebrated the 25th anniversary of the GNU project last year, we decided to take that as an opportunity to look forward and identify about 10 or 12 specific high-priority projects that would really make the free software experience completely awesome. The big things: GNASH, which would be a free flash player; Free Skype; we're also looking to get a free version of the Oracle Forms SQL databases free CAD, which is architectural software.
Sharon Lake of Linux Chix described the organization.
“It's meant to support women in computing. There's two rules to it: it's be polite, be helpful. So it's a way of getting women kind of in a safe environment where they can participate without having to go through the flame fests or negativity that they might encounter somewhere else. In proprietary software, about 25% of the women are developers. In open source software, that number has plummet[ed] to less than 2%, dismal, dismal, dismal numbers. And a lot of what Linux Chix [does] is try to figure out why that barrier exists, because there obviously is some kind of a barrier; identify those causes; and find ways to alleviate that. And one of the ways to alleviate that kind of barrier is to provide an entry way into open source that's a little bit safer than just going into, say, a project and not quite knowing what to do. So it's a safe way as an entry into open source for women.”
I asked her why there are fewer women involved in open source software. “There are a couple of reasons. There's a report that was done by the European Commission called the FLOSSPOLS (Free/Libre/Open Source Software: Policy Support see: http://flosspols.org/) Report. They've identified a couple of reasons: one of the barriers for women getting into open source is they come home, they have a disproportionate amount house of housework that needs to be done. Whereas a man comes home, they just have to eat, and then their time is free. That is one barrier. Another barrier is the 'bar' to being accepted as a developer or contributor is really very hierarchical. If you're a coder, you're considered a contributor, but if you contribute in other ways, the value is considered less. So broadening what's considered a contributor is one of the ways in which to lower the barrier to get women to contribute more. 'You're just doing web design, therefore you are not contributing.' That's one [barrier].
“Another way is to try to create a code of conduct within open source software. If you have a software project where flames are a standard or traditional way of trying to establish hierarchies, that tends to not attract women into a project. If they have to go in and have to both try to get the communication of a project and deal with flame fests, they tend to go to other projects because it's not quite as much work to try to get in there. So it's a way of trying to establish a minimum 'be polite, be helpful' code of conduct, which makes it more comfortable for anyone to get into a project, but it especially lowers the barrier [to those] who might want to get in there but aren't as assertive, at least in the beginning.”
Open Source Voting
This booth allowed people to experience equipment for open source voting (pictured above and below). On hand where Richard Dawson of the Open Source Voting Consortium and Alan Dechert, the president and CEO of that organization.
Question: Could you talk about the concept of open source voting?
Dawson: Well the concept of open source voting seems pretty obvious when you look at the elections we've been holding where proprietary software, meaning secret software; software that the private companies have created; software that cannot be inspected by anybody, cannot even be tested by anybody, it's all very, very obscure; and we've had some pretty strange election results as a consequence.
So the concept here is that the source code for this software is open, it's available to the public. Anybody can download it, they can look at it, they can test it, they can run it, they can do anything they want with this software to evaluate it. Of course, not everybody has the capability of doing that, but anybody, if they're interested enough, can find someone they can hire or persuade otherwise to look at the software and understand it. So that's the reason for making it open source.
Now that's just the first step--you need a system that's secure, that works. This system that we have here, which Open Voting Consortium has put together, relies on a paper ballot. So you have a paper ballot that is the fundamental underlying place where the information is stored. That paper ballot can be scanned electronically to facilitate counting, but as it's scanned, the interested parties, the poll watchers or what-have-you at the precinct, can be watching the tally of the vote and looking at the ballot as it's scanned visually, and they can see and read the ballot and verify that what's recorded electronically is consistent with the intention of the voter.
[So] you have, then, the paper ballot as the basic underlying record of the vote. So if there's any kind of doubt, you can go back to that record and look at it and do a hand count if you need to to verify the results of the election.
One other problem with electronic voting in general is that it's very difficult to ensure that every machine out there is running the correct software. You may have a certified piece of software that the secretary of state, or whoever, has tested and is convinced is good, whether it's proprietary or not, you've got to ensure that the right software is on each computer. Well, if the computers that are running this software have a hard drive that can be accessed illicitly, how can you be sure it's the right version? This system actually runs from a CD, so it doesn't even need a hard drive. The CD basically contains all of the programing that's necessary, and [it] can then be stored as part of the vote record. So if anybody has concerns about whether the right software was used, they can go back and pull it up and verify it bit by bit with the original blessed, sanctioned version.
Question: And anyone can look at that?
Dawson: Anyone can do this, yes. So we think this a pretty good system. But the key underlying principle is open source, to give good transparency so that the people can have confidence in the integrity of the election.
Question: Could you discuss the role that Deborah Bowen has been playing in trying to realize this?
Dawson: Deborah Bowen, who's our current secretary of state in California, has long been a savvy person with regard to electronic data. Back when she was in the assembly, some 16-20 years ago, whatever it was, she was the person who actually brought California data from legislation online. The fact that you as a citizen can go to a website and go look up all the legislation that's in front of the assembly, and read it for yourself, and follow it online is because of Deborah Bowen. So she understands this.
In her campaign for secretary of state, one of the key points she kept making over and over again was that we needed open source software in order to ensure the integrity of our elections.
. . . It's a slow process. The technical challenges to getting this done are not trivial, but the political challenges to getting it done [laughs]...
Question: Pretty much all the problems we're facing in the world we know how to solve. It's the politics....
Dawson: ...of making it happen. So Open Voting Consortium is working very hard with the secretary of state's office, we've worked with the Registrar of Voters in Los Angeles, and we've established an academic partnership with California State University Long Beach. So we're making progress towards making it happen, but it's step-by-step, putting every little brick in place to try get the whole thing built.
. . . Open Voting Consortium is an organization that includes the election director in Johnson County, Kansas. Which happens to be the county in which I grew up. It must be something in the soil there.
Dechert: We have individual members and contributors from all over the world. What we're looking for are governmental memberships, jurisdictions that join. We've been talking to a lot of them, it's a process. We're also looking at business memberships for companies that want to help deliver the services that this voting system would require because the counties aren't going to just take our stuff and make it happen. They're going to need help, they're going to want custom configurations for hardware. So there's business there for people to take, and we want those people to be members of the consortium as well. We're kind of building this imaginary organization and plugging people into it to make it real. It's not quite real yet, it's getting there.
Dawson: [S]ome things that we would like to see happen that would help facilitate this along with little or no cost to the state would be things such as the state providing support for certification, maybe providing support for development of the software. New York state or New York City passed legislation that said that they would forgo some of the application costs for applying for certification if the software was open source. This makes perfect sense because the state's going to pay for the software [in any case]. If it's proprietary and someone's paid a fee to certify it, they're going to charge that back to the state anyway in the cost of the software. The point here is why not forego that expense at the beginning for the benefit of having it be open source, which is a real benefit to the state and the people of the state. That's one of the things we'd like the secretary of state in California to do: to either provide some sort of support for certification or alter the rules to some degree that favors open source. We're trying to work with Deborah Bowen.
The Registrar of California has money from HAVA, which is the Help America Vote Act. They have about $75 million that is supposedly there to buy voting equipment. We think that some portion of that, probably $5 million or less, would be sufficient for them to support certification of this software and that it would be a payback to them in the long run.