You Don’t Own Your Computer, and Your Local Election Commission Doesn’t Own Theirs, Either (But I Do Own Mine)

By Tom Gilson Published on November 25, 2022

Who owns your computer? Who controls it? If you think you do, you’re half right – but not the half that counts. You may own the hardware, but it’s the software that does the work. Software generally belongs to developers, and we trust them for no reason other than having no choice but to trust them. They don’t have final control, though. That lies in the hands of either Apple or Microsoft, depending on what system you’re running.

That’s why I say you don’t really own your computer. They do. And you have no way of knowing what they’re really doing your computer.

There was a time when I took comfort in Apple’s often-stated commitment to privacy. I was highly committed to Apple products. I have been for a very long time, all the way back to Macintosh System 1.1. My loyalty ran so deep, I refused even to learn how to run Windows.

Apple is weakening on that, however, while Microsoft remains what one writer calls a “privacy nightmare.” What really bothered me, though, was when I ran the “Big Sur” system update on my Macbook Pro. Most of my software was locked up for hours. Other users said it lasted days.

The problem? Apple had to check and approve every application before I could run it. Hardly anyone knew about it until the system failed them – and their users – in that update. Microsoft’s new “Pluton” security chip is rumored to be hold even tighter control.

If you value your privacy or your property rights, that ought to cause you real concern.

Your Local Precinct Doesn’t Own Its Computers, Either

I’m only getting started, though. You know who else has the same problem? Your local voting precinct. They don’t own their computers, and they have literally no way to see inside to see what they’re really doing.

Do you trust these software companies? Probably. What choice do you have, after all? And let’s be honest, we’ve all been trained to trust our computers. Like dogs trust their masters. Again: What choice do we have?

A lot, actually. You don’t own your computer, but I do own mine. I know nothing about programming, but I know for certain I can trust my software. Yours could be pulling secret shenanigans, and you’d have no way of knowing about it. Mine isn’t, period.

Believe it or not, you can get this level of trust without knowing anything more about computers than you already know. Not just that, but you can get all this trusted software for free. Your local election board could, too — not the free part, but at least the trust part.

I don’t know which concern strikes closer to your heart: Your privacy and property rights, or election integrity. For me it’s both. I’ve chosen to talk about both at once here, because the two problems help explain each other.

It’s actually the same problem for both, and they both have the same solution. You really could own your computer. I do. Your election officials could own theirs, too. They don’t, though, and that poses a seriously unbelievable risk.

Closed-Source Software Equal Secret Software

No doubt you remember the charges from 2020: Computerized voting machines allegedly sent American results overseas for unknown reasons, and changed vote counts here at home. Whether you believe that happened or not is immaterial for my purposes here. One fact is beyond debate: Whether Dominion machines did that or not depends on whether Dominion’s software engineers coded them to do it.

If they didn’t do it, then they didn’t. If they did, they did. By the nature of the software, no one outside Dominion can possibly see the difference. No one. Not even in theory. Dominion’s software is “closed source,” meaning there is no way to access what’s really inside it, no way to know just by looking at it what it’s really doing.

So while it’s a matter of debate whether anyone used these machines to commit fraud, there’s no debate over whether they could have. If Dominion’s engineers built them with that intent, there would be only one way to catch them in it: by watching the computer’s outputs. An investigator might feed it a known set of ballots and see if it reports on them accurately. Technicians could watch for information packets going out to the internet. (Voting machines should be physically isolated from the internet, but that’s a different category problem.)

Is This What We Mean by “Secret Ballot”?

Computer voting with closed-source software lends a whole new meaning to the idea, “secret ballot.” We cast our ballots in secret, and the machines that tally them work in secret, too. No one but you knows how you voted unless you tell them. And no one but the software designer knows what actually happens to your vote after you cast it.

This is no tinfoil-hat conspiracy theory. This is standard knowledge in the tech world.

Are you comfortable trusting them with that? I hope not. It’s not because Dominion is especially bad company, either. It’s because it’s a company run by human beings, and we don’t trust any humans that way.

Secret Software and Public Trust

Think of it broadly: How do we prevent fraud? We could refuse to give anyone access to power or money who isn’t immune to all temptation. Good luck with that. More realistically, we ensure that no one has free, open, unobserved access to power and money that isn’t rightly theirs.

That’s why your church has two people in the room together counting the offering, and not from the same family. (If that’s not your church’s policy, you need to rethink things.) Businesses have independent auditors checking their books. Frequently, in fact, the term “audit” isn’t even about the books as much as it is the processes. Auditors don’t just read ledgers, they also check policies and process, for example making sure there’s always at least two sets of eyes on the finances (and other risk factors) at all times.

It’s no different with elections. Poll workers at my local precinct will offer to bring a ballot out to a disabled person’s vehicle, but they never come alone, I’m told. There has to be someone there representing both major parties. Back in the cliff-hanger election of 2000, every hanging chad in all of Florida got a close look from multiple observers.

Trusting the Black Box is Like Wearing Blindfolds to Observe Elections

It all happens under multiple watchful eyes, in theory, anyway. If it doesn’t always happen that way in practice, everyone at least pays it lip service. We all know it should happen – until it’s dumped into the computer. That’s when election workers put on the blindfolds and turn out the lights, and say quite madly, “What, me worry?”

The machines process our votes by who-knows-what method, and sends its who-knows-how-honest results to some other machine or machines sitting who-knows-where, to do knows who-knows-what to those results. We know that some voting machines in 2020 were connected to the internet, so who-knows-where could be literally anywhere on the planet.

This is sheer craziness.

So what else can we do? What other choice do we even have? Should we return to paper ballots and pencils to tally them? Thankfully there’s no need for that. We can bring it all into the light another way: By bringing these computers’ code out into the open. You’ll be surprised when you learn how easy it can be, and not just for geeks.

How to Trust Your Software After All

Here’s where I return to my own computer as example. I have no programming skills. I have no clue how to read code. Yet I have reason to trust my software. Unlike you, I own my computer. More accurately, I have full confidence that I can trust its software. No one’s going to mess with it, no one’s going to pull it out from under me, and no one’s going to hijack my personal data with it. I use all this software under license, but not the kind of license that’s meant to hide secrets. The reason I can trust the code on my computer is because all of it, 100 percent, is open source.

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It’s not just “open” in the sense that some expert somewhere could look at it if he had the urge to do so. This software has hundreds if not thousands of coders studying it every day. If one of them tries to pull something with a piece of software, a hundred others will jump all over him. Penalties can be severe. Then they’ll patch the software to repair any harm, and the patch will probably be available for my computer in a matter of hours.

I don’t need to know software development. I don’t need to trust any one “un-temptable” individual or software company. All I need is to know that many, many software specialists have their eyes on it, make sure it’s not hiding any secrets. That’s all our election computers need, too.

Honestly, Though, Is This Realistic?

“Sure,” you say, “That’s fine on your home computer, but this is bigger than that!” Not to worry. The same free and open source operating system driving my computer, Linux, also powers three-quarters of the internet. And the New York Stock Exchange. Not to mention Tokyo’s and London’s stock exchanges as wll. And the nation’s air traffic control systems. And Amazon.com. Google, too. (Feeling better about that now?)

Ballots should be cast in secret, but no longer can we allow them to be counted in secret.

“But wait” you say again. “You said ‘free.’ How do you expect anyone to build voting software and not get paid for it?” No problem: Open-source isn’t synonymous with “free.” It means “accessible. “Not secret.”

“But don’t people have to keep trade secrets in order to make a living?” Not really. I don’t have space here to fill all this in, but the potential to make a good living here is only as narrow as human ingenuity, which isn’t narrow at all. Android phones run on Linux. You can be sure they’re making money there. And I did mention Google, didn’t I?

Time to End the Wrong Kind of Secret Balloting!

Here’s the sum of it. Present-day computer election systems are an invitation to fraud. Whether it’s happened in the past or not, there’s no good reason to allow even the possibility going forward. The best protection against fraud is observation. If you didn’t know that was possible before, you do now.

Three New Hampshire towns tested open source software in this past election. Election software can be open source software, too. You don’t have to know how build it, you just have to insist on it. Ballots should be cast in secret, but no longer can we allow them to be counted in secret.

 

I cannot close without two final notes. One is for those who wonder how you can truly own your computer at home. I cannot offer to be anyone’s tech advisor: I already have a job, and I’m not equipped to do it for you besides. I suggest you find a real advisor near you if you can, one who’s got some skills in Linux. The switch can almost be DIY, surprisingly (with emphasis on “almost”),  so if you’re the tech-adventuresome type, why not go find yourself an old cheap laptop, visit this web page, follow the recipe there, and have at it!

My second final note is for those who were bothered that I said “Linux” instead of the more technically correct “GNU/Linux,” and who might also be bothered that I didn’t mention that some of my absolute statements here may have exceptions. That’s true, except from what my sources tell me, there are none that matter. Reverse-engineering the code in a Dominion computer, for example, would require extraordinary hacking/cracking skills, the use of questionably-legal software, and physical access to the machines through tight physical and legal barriers —  all with no sure guarantee you’ll succeed. Not gonna happen, as they say.

 

Tom Gilson (@TomGilsonAuthor) is a senior editor with The Stream and the author or editor of six books, including the highly acclaimed Too Good To Be False: How Jesus’ Incomparable Character Reveals His Reality.

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