Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Technology of Trust

The recent announcement by the Elections Commision to use biometric systems at the polls was instantly met with criticism and scepticism. The EC claims that the biometric system is a "fool-proof" system, while opposing parties went on to question the competence of the EC in deploying, maintaining and securing such a system.

For me, the technical merits of this, or in fact, any system is rather irrelevant. One may argue that there are several known methods of circumventing a fingerprint reader. Or that the records of voters are unreliable, etc. If we continue along this path, we soon find that 'biometric system' is just a pair of words with no absolute definition. Without a detailed set of definitions, open to peer review, it could mean just about anything the EC wants it to mean.

Then there's the matter of implementation. Who is to know if the voting process is being carried out exactly to specifications? What safeguards are there against deviation and fraud? Who makes the observations and certifications?

It all comes down to trust. If there is no trust in the people who run the system, it doesn't matter how 'fool-proof' the technology is. For example, there are cryptographic algorithms available these days that are statistically impossible to crack;  yet, people get busted and data gets stolen all the time. Not because of any technical failure, but because the people who were trusted with the keys gave in.

(There happens to be an on-going case right now where US courts are on the verge of setting a precedent of forcing a defendant to divulge his password to investigators. This is a 5th Amendment issue as it ultimately amounts to self-incrimination.)

Trust, unfortunately, is most certainly not a 'fool-proof' system. But it is the system that any activity involving more than one person ultimately relies on.

Therefore, both the EC and its critics should be careful in avoiding a spiralling argument on technology, and instead focus on building trust on a framework of safeguards and incentives to keep that trust.


  1. A very well-written commentary. Kudos.