Technophile or technophobe, it’s easy to slip into an Orwellian panic when considering a highly-connected, technocentric government. For years now, we’ve all seen the dire reports about government databases being joined together and made accessible to every civil servant with a badge. We’ve heard about the potential horrors of mandatory federal identification cards and the types of tracking such a system could facilitate. Then there’s the matter of our votes. They’ll be hacked and we’ll never be able to prove anything!
Given the current state of technology in our government, these are actually quite valid concerns and there are a great many more to boot. The central problem, from which all of these issues stem, is that you cannot build a trusted system atop an untrusted one (for the purists, yes it’s actually possible but the degree of isolation required is practically unachievable in this context).
For purposes here, we’ll define an untrusted system as one that was not designed from inception with external auditing and monitoring capability for all components.
In addition to a trusted foundation, complex systems must be designed, from the outset, to be modular and scalable. Computer science has learned a lot about these design facets over the past 20 years. In the past, vertical scaling (making a single computer ever-more capable and resilient, usually through the addition of expensive, specialized hardware) has given way to horizontal scaling (distribution of computing tasks across a large number of standardized computers).
Writing applications for a horizontally scaled environment happens to lend itself well to the creation of a secure, highly accessible, highly distributed platform for facilitating democratic governance. As the smoke begins to clear and the ashes begin to settle in the post-Trumpian wasteland, there will be a void to fill and a renewed longing for a viable trust model for our government. This will be a golden opportunity to implement just such a platform.
By starting fresh and designing a modular, scalable system that employs open standards and secure design principles, we can restore faith in government through assured transparency (or opaqueness, where appropriate), accountability, and efficiency. In spite of the fact that technology has consumed our everyday lives, there are still individuals who are cynical toward any sort of technology-heavy approach to government. The fact is, though, that we’re already awash in computers, databases, and electronic ID. Unfortunately, none of it has been thought through holistically, it’s wildly insecure, and it’s ripe for abuse due to a woeful lack of controls.
Why wouldn’t we want to step back, design it right and make it do what we need? Design and deployment of a ‘democracy technology platform’ at the federal level would be expensive, no doubt. What’s the cost, though, of the millions-per-instance identity theft cases that we now routinely hear of (or fall victim to), election uncertainty, uncaught waste, etc. that will continue to undermine our government and financial institutions? At this point we really only have two options: continue to fall victim or get working on a viable solution.