07 January 2006

Code is Law, Code is Politics

As Lawrence Lessig famously noted, Code is Law. Which means that Code is Politics, too, since laws are drawn up by politicians. But the intimate relationship between code and politics is becoming manifest in a rather different context (pity about the yellow on black text).

The issue here is about the software used in voting machines. Since, one day, all voting will be carried with such machines (unless we decide to go back to using ostraca), now is the time to consider why free access to the code that runs them is indispensable for political transparency.

It comes down to this: if you are dealing with a black box, you can have absolutely no faith in the results it produces. It might just make them up or - worse - change them subtly, or perhaps be pre-programmed to crash if a particular party gets too many votes, requiring a complete re-run, with knock-on effects on voting patterns.

If you have the source code you can run it and examine what it does with various voting inputs, and check that it has no nefarious sub-routines. However, even this is not enough for full confidence in the voting machine: paper audits are also indispensable for checking on the consistency of the outputs, and allowing for the ultimate fall-back - counting by hand.

Still, this is a clear instance of where, in a literal rather than metaphorical sense, closed source jeopardises the very basis of democracy. Looks like RMS was right.

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