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Market Squared: Online voting — the wrong decision for the right reasons?

"The Internet isn’t just the Wild West, it’s the Westworld Wild West, one minute you’re having a good time, and the next the machine’s are trying to kill you"
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Where nothing can possibly go wrong!

There comes a point in every super-lengthy council meeting where part of you wants to pack it in and continue another day. The other part of you wants to power through until the end.

That was especially true this past Monday at council. The contentious debate was around online voting.

Leaning heavily on questions to tech savvy delegates, it was pretty clear that councillors knew where the night was going, but they were in no hurry to get there.

In one of those dreaded 7-6 votes, council opted to not proceed with Internet voting for the 2018 municipal election. This decision was made, despite of the assurances of staff that it could be done safely and the numerous correspondences asking for online voting to be maintained.

I haven’t done a final count, but in the initial council package, out of over 200 entries, only 1 out of every 8 e-mails on the subject was against online voting.

It’s not often that you can say a decision genuinely came down to following what’s in your heart and following what’s in your head, but here it was.

The delegations advocating on behalf of people with disabilities were heartfelt. They were also a frank reminder that true independence is letting people decide for themselves.

But there was that looming spectre of the dark web, and all the dangers there in. A couple of people with some fairly impressive credentials said that the majority on council were right to be afraid.

In that regard, there was some shocking naivety in this debate. There were some that thought those concerned about security were Chicken Littles, stirring up false worry about a falling sky that sits securely above.

Others asked that question: “Why would anyone bother hacking a local Guelph election?” How about, why not?

Why did the Impact Team hack Ashley Madison and release user information?

Why did some anonymous person or persons post hacked pictures of nude celebrities to 4chan?

Forget motivation! It’s not the Russians, or other state-sponsored operators, we have to worry about. It is the Jokers that want to watch the world burn and have no motivation to create chaos other than for the “Lulz”.

They don’t have to install a false mayor and a false council, they can just DDOS the system and crash it so that no one can cast their votes.

It’s also worth noting that there’s more than two ways for hackers to cause trouble online.

But it was this sort of ideas that I think made the elongated meeting worthwhile — a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of the Internet.

Here is a thing we put so much faith in daily, that can be perverted into something that can ruin our lives with almost little to no effort by certain people for little to no reason. That’s the scary side. What about the fundamentals?

For instance, why is banking and shopping online more secure than voting online? Because the two things are, in essence, diametrically opposed. Security online comes from software knowing who you are, knowing your patterns.

If you don’t have a drivers license and thus never buy anything related to a car, your bank’s going to think it suspicious when you buy a Subaru.

But knowing who cast what ballot defeats the purpose a secret ballot, which has been a part of democracy even going so far back as ancient Greece.

Of course ancient Greece wasn’t perfect, and neither was the way this entire situation came about.

Prof. Hugh Whiteley hit the nail on the head when he suggested that the City might have been better served by having more public engagement on Internet voting before this came to council.

Councillor Bob Bell noted feeling behind the times when he voted against Internet voting in 2013. He was in the minority then, but here we seem to have the rare instance of time catching up by going backwards.

Yes, it seems like a million years since 2013. In computer terms, so much has happened since then: the Sony hack; the hack of the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign; fake news; and then there’s Nigerian royalty and the people pretending to be Canada Revenue bilking iTunes gift cards out of people to pay fines they never owed.

The Internet isn’t just the Wild West. It’s the Westworld Wild West, where one minute you’re having a good time and the next the machines are trying to kill you.

Having said that, the dangers of the Wild West didn’t stop people from moving there and taming it. Things stop being scary the more we learn about them. And while there’s a lot to fear about the Internet, there’s a lot of opportunity too.

And while it’s true that the MPAC list of electors has its faults — and we haven’t completely figured out how to have both security and privacy when it comes to voting. You don’t throw out the car just because of a couple of broken parts.

I know what you’re thinking, what’s wrong with me?

I used to be one of the most anti of the anti-Internet voting lobby. Maybe I still am, but I also bristle at the idea that we’re letting the bad guys win. I hate thefact that this was basically presented as dichotomy — that we could either have Internet voting or not have it. There was no opportunity to make or propose changes to address even some of the concerns.

On top of that, it’s now political. Well, it was always political, but there was no mention of personal politics in any of the debating on Monday night. It was all relatively on issue.

Still, the mayor posted the names of those councillors who voted against Internet voting, not just once, but twice. It was a not so subtle jab to say, “Blame them, they’re the ones.” That’s as if to say it’s over and that there’ll never ever again be Internet voting in the City of Guelph.

Even the experts at council delegating believed it was inevitable.

It was after council that the point was really driven home.

One of the delegates spoke in favour of Internet voting because it would allow them the independence to vote as their disability makes mobility difficult.

In fact, making it to council that night to speak in person was itself a challenge. After the meeting, they were sobbing outside the council chambers. They had lost something deeply personal, a chance to be heard just like everyone else by casting a vote.

I wondered, and still wonder, did council Monday night make the wrong decision for the right reasons?

Maybe, we missed a chance to overcome challenges instead of get buried by them.

Maybe, in the mad scramble to chose between Door #1 and Door #2, we ignored Door #3 or #4. 

That’s kind of sad.