Monday, January 07, 2013

States and Nations 3.0: The defense of cyberdemocracies

Previous article: Social Network Democracy

Being dependent on networked software systems for governance or voting functions, a cyberdemocracy would be vulnerable to being hacked. That's not a surprising revelation, of course, but it is a weakness that needs to be addressed as part of any serious discussion about electronic and social network democracies.

Social engine software could be targeted with commonplace methods such as denial of service attacks, trojan-delivered root kits, and viruses, or subverted by more circuitous means of aggression. On present day social networks, the latter sometimes take the form of cybermobs and cyberbullying, in which slanderous emails or texts are used to organize attacks, boycotts, or the shaming of targeted individuals in a manner never intended by a network's creators. An application of such techniques could be used to sabotage a vote or turn a segment of a society against a group of fellow citizens. Another, less direct subversion of a cyberemocracy, would be an organized wave of sockpuppet attacks -- like those that are occasionally employed to spam review sites and up-voting systems.

In the end though, none of these possibilities are good arguments against cyberdemocracies, at least in my estimation. Dealing with online attacks is a reality of living in an age of networks. We already do so with our present networked financial system, and though the heavily automated and interlinked system of logistics that moves goods across the world.

We're already so invested in cyberspace  that retreating from it is not a realistic option at this point. Instead, creating robust systems capable of absorbing attacks is the price of functionality. A reality that's already in practice in business and manufacturing, and could be adapted for social governance software at some point in the future.

It's also worth considering that traditional democracy hasn't always been above subversion. It took time and successive waves of reforms to create democracy's present, relatively stable configuration. In the recent past, democratic nations imposed requirements that effectively disenfranchised large portions of their populations. In the US, political machines, the wealthy, and rail road corporations all engaged in brazen vote buying prior to reforms introduced during the late 1800s.

To prevent similar failures and to provide robustness, cyberdemocracies will need transparency, redundant data trails, and independent observers. Their governance systems would also need to be administered by individuals accountable in some significant way to the public. Additionally, some of the necessary transparency could be achieved by making sure that its software is open source.

Would the use of open source software make cyberdemocracies more vulnerable to being hacked? Not likely. The most popular server software, which is also the basis for Apple's iPhone, the Mac operating system, and the Android OS are all Linux variants. Linux, perhaps the most famous product of the open source movement, has proven itself to be a solid and reliable operating system in the current Wild West environment of the internet. Open source governance systems would not only provide transparency, but have access to a community of developers who have created an iterative creation process that has outstripped closed-source systems in quality and reliability over the past twenty years.

Like any other software system cyberdemocracy governance architectures would not need to be foolproof. Instead, they would need to be robust enough to avoid catastrophic failure under stress, and redundant enough to quickly recover from service outages and attempts at data falsification or destruction.

It's also worth noting that even with the worrying incidents in recent years, ranging from hacker-caused power outages in Brazil to an ongoing series of attacks against major US banks -- likely conducted by Iran's security services -- no one has succeeded in causing a catastrophic failure that has threatened the stability of a nation-state.

That's not to say it can't happen. Especially in the age of banks that are too big to fail, when the implosion of a Lehman Brothers can threaten the global economy. If nothing else, the destruction of 30,000 computers at the oil company Saudi Aramco last August gives us an idea of the kind of damage that could be inflicted on the financial system. Still, the failure of cyber attacks or even a major financial network malfunction to significantly damage a national economy to date suggests that disrupting a nation through software means is extraordinarily difficulty.

With that in mind, it seems likely that a cyberdemocracy's underlying governance system would be just one more part of that nation or collective's critical infrastructure.

Next up: Scale and the arrow of societal evolution

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