Category: Government

We must consider secure online voting

The list of states delaying primaries and elections is quickly increasing, with New Jersey adding local elections to the list. Even Congress — in a break from tradition — is rethinking what it means to vote safely in this new paradigm, stirring calls for remote voting for its upcoming legislation around the pandemic.

This debate, however, lacks important context: Many U.S. citizens are already voting online at home and abroad. In fact, 23 U.S. states and the District of Columbia allow some voters to return absentee ballots via email, while five others permit some voters to do so using a web portal.

We are election officials in two states that require us to offer an online method to some of our voters. For these voters, the argument is not an academic one, but an issue of necessity — traditional voting methods simply don’t work for those living abroad, deployed in the military or those with disabilities. As election officials, it’s our duty to stand up for the constitutional rights of our citizens, whatever their circumstances, and the reality is that online voting dramatically improves the opportunities for these two groups to engage with our democracy.

We should not be debating whether online voting should exist, but rather asking: What is the most secure way to facilitate electronic voting? Because it’s already being done. And because it’s needed by some voting groups — whose volume might expand in the near future.

As a country, we currently have three million eligible voters living abroad, and only 7% cast ballots in the 2016 elections, according to the Federal Voting Assistance Program’s biennial Overseas Citizen Population Analysis. This same analysis found that removing logistical barriers to voting would raise participation by 30%. A different analysis separately found that while nearly one million active-duty military are eligible to vote, only around 23% of them actually did in 2018.

The traditional system of mailed-in absentee ballots and centralized polling places is failing these voters, and they aren’t alone among the disenfranchised. The turnout story is also grim for the 35 million U.S. voters with disabilities. An October 2017 Government Accountability Office report also found widespread barriers to disabled voting, such as machines that could have made it impossible to cast votes privately. It’s no wonder that, as a 2017 Rutgers University study found, disabled voting participation has declined in each of the last two presidential elections, dropping from 57.3% in 2008 to 55.9% in 2016.

New technologies offer promise to expanding and securing access for overseas citizens and voters with disabilities. Consider MacCene Grimmett, who is, at 106, Utah’s oldest voter. When she was born in 1913, women did not have the right to vote. Homebound since she broke her ankle two years ago and unable to hold a pen steadily, she was able to cast her ballot last year thanks to an app on a mobile device. The technology empowered her, helping her execute — independently, anonymously, securely and with dignity — her most basic duty as a citizen.

Pilots and tests are happening at different scales in localities around the country, and early results are demonstrating positive outcomes. In 2019,Utah County’s offering mobile-phone voting to overseas citizens resulted in a marked increase in participation rates. In fact, turnout rates for voters using the app overseas were higher than for those who went to the polls in-person on Election Day. Oregon also successfully permitted its citizens to use app-voting in 2019.

Importantly, all pilots include the ability to rigorously audit the results so we can ensure 100% accuracy along the way.

The challenge, ultimately, is how to continue leveraging technology in a secure and innovative way to maximize access. Safety is paramount: We are deeply aware that we live in an interconnected world where foreign adversaries and other malicious entities are using information technology to try to undermine our political system. It’s our responsibility to understand the environment in which we operate as we forge ahead.

But while these concerns can be valid, they should not outweigh both the necessity and potential benefits of internet-based voting. Just as we cannot place blind faith in the infallibility of our technologies, we also cannot fall into a senseless, all-encompassing mistrust that would both disenfranchise millions of voters and shake trust in our elections.

Rather than making sweeping judgments, we need to weigh each case individually. Why, for example, should Iowa’s failure, which involved poor training, lack of testing and trouble reporting caucus results on one specific technology platform by a political party adversely affect whether a disabled Utahn or an Oregonian soldier can cast their vote — and verify it — by app?

Expanding voter participation by ensuring ballot access for all citizens is paramount to protecting our democracy. In the 21st century, that will necessarily include electronic methods, particularly as we face challenges with voters abroad and contemplate emerging challenges at home like COVID-19, where large public gatherings — and long lines — spark new threats to consider.

We must continue trials and experiments to broaden access for voters, while hardening the system and making it more resilient, and that means beginning with small-scale pilots, seeing what works, stringently auditing the results and then employing that knowledge in new rounds of testing. App-based voting, for example, is already more secure than returning a ballot by email, and it also preserves voter anonymity in a way that email makes impossible (because whoever opens the email to hand-copy the vote onto a paper ballot for tabulation knows who sent it).

These are the everyday successes that internet-based voting is producing right now. And they ought to be driving the discussion as we move forward slowly, responsibly and confidently.

Former Coinbase exec is now down with OCC (the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency)

Former Coinbase chief legal officer Brian Brooks has been tapped as the chief operating officer and first deputy comptroller of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, beginning April 1, 2020.

In the role, Brooks will help the OCC in its mission of chartering, regulating and supervising national banks and federal savings associations, along with federal branches and agencies of foreign banks.

Specifically, the chief operating officer is involved with oversight of banking supervision policy, large bank supervision, midsize and community bank supervision, the office of innovation, supervision system and analytical support and systemic risk identification support and specialty supervision.

Nowhere in that word-salad does it mention bitcoin, but it’s likely that cryptocurrencies will be one area where Brooks will spend at least some of his time, given his previous job and areas of expertise.

“Brian Brooks is a strong leader with extensive experience in the financial services sector,” said Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin, in a statement. “I look forward to working with him to ensure the stability of our financial system and its ability to foster greater economic growth for the benefit of all Americans.”

Brooks served as the chief legal officer for Coinbase since September 2018, and previously served as executive vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary of Fannie Mae.

Facebook fact-check feud erupts over Trump virus “hoax”

Who fact-checks the fact-checkers? Did Trump call coronavirus the Democrat’s “new hoax”?

Those the big questions emerging from a controversial “false” label applied to Politico and NBC News stories by right-wing publisher The Daily Caller. Its Check Your Fact division is a Facebook fact-checking partner, giving it the power to flag links on the social network as false, demoting their ranking in the News Feed as well as the visibility of the entire outlet that posted it.

Critics railed against Facebook’s decision to admit The Daily Caller to the fact-checking program last April due to its history of publishing widely debunked articles. Now some believe their fears of politically biased fact-checks are coming true.

Image via Judd Legum

This week, Check Your Fact rated two stories as false. “Trump rallies his base to treat coronavirus as a ‘hoax’ from Politico, and “Trump calls coronavirus Democrats’ ‘new hoax’” from NBC News, as highlighted by Popular Information’s Judd Legum. The fact-check explanation states that “Trump actually described complaints about his handling of the virus threat as a “hoax”.

Trump had said at a rally that (emphasis ours):

Now the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus. You know that, right? Coronavirus. They’re politicizing it. We did one of the great jobs . . . They tried the impeachment hoax. That was on a perfect conversation. They tried anything, they tried it over and over, they’ve been doing it since you got in. It’s all turning, they lost, it’s all turning. Think of it. Think of it. And this is their new hoax. But you know, we did something that’s been pretty amazing. We’re 15 people [cases of coronavirus infection] in this massive country. And because of the fact that we went early, we went early, we could have had a lot more than that . . . we’ve lost nobody, and you wonder, the press is in hysteria mode.

It’s hard to tell exactly what Trump means here. He could be calling coronavirus a hoax, concerns about its severity a hoax, or Democrats’ criticism of his response a hoax. Reputable fact-checking institution Snopes rated the claim that Trump called coronavirus a hoax as a mixture of true and false, noting “Despite creating some confusion with his remarks, Trump did not call the coronavirus itself a hoax.”

Image via Judd Legum

Perhaps Politico and NBC News’ headlines went too far, or perhaps the headlines fairly describe Trump’s characterization of the situation.

But the bigger concern is how Facebook has designed its fact-checking system to prevent other fact-checking partners from auditing the decision of The Daily Caller.

When asked about this, Facebook deflected responsibility, implying that audit process wouldn’t be necessary because all of its fact-checking partners have been certified through the non-partisan International Fact-Checking Network. This group publishes ethics guidelines that include an accuracy standard that requires checkers “maintain high standards of reporting, writing, and editing in order to produce work that is as error-free as possible.” Checkers are also supposed to follow criteria for determining story accuracy, and can apply  mid-point labels like “Partly False” or “False Headline” which The Daily Caller didn’t use here.

Facebook tells me that because it doesn’t think it’s appropriate for it to be the arbiter of truth, it relies on the IFCN to set guidelines. It also noted that there’s an appeals process where publishers can reach out to directly to a fact-checker to dispute a rating. But when I followed up, Facebook clarified that publishers can only appeal the fact-checker that labeled them, and can’t appeal to other fact-checkers for a second decision or audit of the original label.

fb arbiter of truth

That leaves very little room for controversial or inaccurate labels to be rolled back. A fact-checker would have to be formally rejected by the IFCN for violating its guidelines to lose its status as a Facebook partner.

If Facebook doesn’t want to be the arbiter of truth, it should still establish a process for a quorum of its fact-checking partners to play that role. If consensus amongst other partners is that a label was in accurate and a story might instead warrant a lesser label or none at all, that new decision should be applied. Otherwise, mistakes or malicious bias from a single fact-checker could suppress the work of entire news outlets and deprive the public of the truth.

Trump’s Election Day YouTube takeover feels very different in 2020

According to a report from Bloomberg, the Trump campaign called dibs on some of the most prized ad space online in the days leading up to the 2020 U.S. election.

Starting in early November and continuing onto Election Day itself, the campaign will reportedly command YouTube’s masthead, the space at the very top of the video sharing site’s homepage. YouTube is now the second most popular website globally after the online video platform overtook Facebook in web traffic back in 2018. Bloomberg didn’t report the details of the purchase, but the YouTube masthead space is reported to cost as much as a million dollars a day.

The Trump campaign’s ad buy is likely to rub the president’s many critics the wrong way, but it isn’t unprecedented. In 2012, the Obama campaign bought the same space before Mitt Romney landed the Republican nomination. It’s also not a first for the Trump campaign, which bought banner ads at the top of YouTube last June to send its own message during the first Democratic debate.

Screenshot of Trump campaign’s June 2019 YouTube ads via NPR/YouTube

In spite of the precedent, 2020 is a very different year for political money flowing to tech companies—one with a great degree of newfound scrutiny. The big tech platforms are still honing their respective rules for political advertising as November inches closer, but the kinks are far from ironed out and the awkward dance between politics and tech continues.

The fluidity of the situation is a boon to campaigns eager to plow massive amounts of cash into tech platforms. Facebook remains under scrutiny for its willingness to accept money for political ads containing misleading claims, even as the company is showered in cash by 2020 campaigns. Most notable among them is the controversial candidacy of multi-billionaire Mike Bloomberg, who spent a whopping $33 million on Facebook alone in the last 30 days. In spite of its contentious political ad policies, much-maligned Facebook offers a surprising degree of transparency around what runs on its platform through its robust political ad library, a tool that arose out of the controversy surrounding the 2016 U.S. election.

On the other end of the spectrum, Twitter opted to ban political ads altogether, and is currently working on a way to label “synthetic or manipulated media” intended to mislead users—an effort that could flag non-paid content by candidates, including a recent debate video doctored by the Bloomberg campaign. Twitter is working through its own policy issues in a relatively public way, embracing trial-and-error rather than carving its rules in stone.

Unlike Twitter, YouTube will continue to run political ads, but did mysteriously remove a batch of 300 Trump campaign ads last year without disclosing what policy the ads had violated. Google also announced that it would limit election ad targeting to a few high level categories (age, gender and zip code), a decision the Trump campaign called the “muzzling of political speech.” In spite of its strong stance on microtargeting, Google’s policies around allowing lies in political ads fall closer to Facebook’s anything-goes approach. Google makes a few exceptions, disallowing “misleading claims about the census process” and “false claims that could significantly undermine participation or trust in an electoral or democratic process,” the latter of which leaves an amphitheater-sized amount of room for interpretation.

In recent years, much of the criticism around political advertising has centered around the practice of microtargeting ads to hyper-specific sets of users, a potent technique made possible by the amount of personal data collected by modern social platforms and a strategy very much back in action in 2020. While Trump’s campaign leveraged that phenomenon to great success in 2016, Trump’s big YouTube ad buy is just one part of an effort to see what sticks, advertising to anybody and everybody in the splashiest spot online in the process.

YouTube declined to confirm the Trump campaign’s reported ad buy to TechCrunch, but noted that the practice of buying the YouTube masthead is “common” during elections.

“In the past, campaigns, PACs, and other political groups have run various types of ads leading up to election day,” the spokesperson said. “All advertisers follow the same process and are welcome to purchase the masthead space as long as their ads comply with our policies.”

Surprise! Audit finds automated license plate reader programs are a privacy nightmare

Automated license plate readers, ALPRs, would be controversial even if they were responsibly employed by the governments that run them. Unfortunately, and to no one’s surprise, the way they actually operate is “deeply disturbing and confirm[s] our worst fears about the misuse of this data,” according to an audit of the programs instigated by a Californian legislator.

What we’ve learned today is that many law enforcement agencies are violating state law, are retaining personal data for lengthy periods of time, and are disseminating this personal data broadly. This state of affairs is totally unacceptable,” said California State Senator Scott Weiner (D-SF), who called for the audit of these programs. The four agencies audited were the LAPD, Fresno PD, and the Marin and Sacramento County Sheriffs Departments.

The inquiry revealed that the programs can barely justify their existence and not seem to have, let alone follow, best practices for security and privacy:

  • Los Angeles alone stores 320 million license plate images, 99.9 percent of which were not being sought by law enforcement at the time of collection.
  • Those images were shared with “hundreds” of other agencies but there was no record of how this was justified legally or accomplished properly.
  • None of the agencies has a privacy policy in line with requirements established in 2016. Three could not adequately explain access and oversight permissions, or how and when data would or could be destroyed, “and the remaining agency has not developed a policy at all.”
  • There were almost no policies or protections regarding account creation and use and have never audited their own systems.
  • Three of the agencies store their images and data with a cloud vendor, the contract for which had inadequate if any protections for that data.

In other words, “there is significant cause for alarm,” the press release stated. As the programs appear to violate state law they may be prosecuted, and as existing law appears to be inadequate to the task of regulating them, new ones must be proposed, Wiener said, and he is working on it.

The full report can be read here.

Sleek raises $5M to help companies incorporate and operate in Singapore and Hong Kong

Sleek, a startup that is making it easier for other startups and companies to incorporate and operate in Singapore and Hong Kong, said today it has extended its seed financing round to raise $5 million.

The extended seed round for the two-year-old startup was led by private investors Pierre Lorinet and Fabio Blom, and MI8, an Asia-focused European backed private investment company.

Sleek also counts a number of high profile individuals including Martin Crawford, former Group CEO of corporate services giant Vistra, Olivier Gerhardt, founder of Wavecell, Eric Barbier, founder of TransferTo, and Olivier Legrand, MD Asia at Linkedin among its investors.

Sleek, founded by French entrepreneurs Julien Labruyere and Adrien Barthel, today helps more than 2,000 startups and companies in Singapore and Hong Kong, an additional market it extended to in mid-2019. Some of its clients include Yours Cosmetics (funded by Sequoia), Aspire Financials (which raised $30 million recently), Ematic Solutions, Devialet, and oil and gas giant Total.

As we wrote about them in June this year, Sleek not only helps startups and companies incorporate themselves in Singapore (and now, Hong Kong), but also takes care of their accounting, taxes, regulatory compliance and other administrative work.

Sleek founders Julien Labruyere (right) and Adrien Barthel (left)

Singapore and Hong Kong have emerged as epicenters for startups and tech worldwide. “Hong Kong is a historical Asian financial hub, with six times more operating companies than in Singapore and an amazing business ecosystem,” said Barthel, adding that despite the current situation in Hong Kong, the business is growing in the market.

Both Singapore and Hong Kong today offer a range of benefits including government-backed startup programs to attract businesses, but setting up shops there still require a lot of paperwork.

The traditional way of dealing with accounting and incorporation is a cumbersome task, and the last thing founders want to deal with, Barthel explained to TechCrunch in an interview. Plus, there’s no transparency in what the actual cost of doing these tasks would be, he said.

Sleek offers a subscription business, where it charges a fixed amount — about $600 — to its customers each year. Starting second year, it waives some of its fee, said Barthel. “We also offer a simple dashboard for our clients to quickly check the progress we have made on any front,” he added.

To make the deal even better, Sleek offers vouchers with subscription to AWS, Stripe, Google Cloud — that they are likely going to use in their businesses anyway — worth thousands of dollars. The startup also connects its partner entrepreneurs with financial institutions to help them access working capital.

Barthel said before signing up a client, Sleek does its own due diligence. “Singapore, for instance, has stringent on KYC (know your customer) processes. Among other things, we use a number of APIs that are tied with all the major global databases to ensure that our potential clients are not doing notorious business,” he said.

Sleek, which today employs 85 people, will use the fresh capital to expand its tech team, build new features for clients, and increase its operational capacity.

Report alleges Amazon worked with Indiana to downplay warehouse worker’s death and safety concerns

It’s strange that no matter how hard Amazon denies that its warehouses are terrible, dangerous places to work, the reports to that effect just keep coming out. Not only that, but now a whistleblower alleges the company worked with Indiana officials to erase a workplace safety violation that cost a man his life.

Reveal News reports the whistleblower’s account of Phillip Lee Terry’s death in 2017 and the subsequent efforts to shift blame from Amazon to the deceased. The full report is worth reading; it implicates Amazon, the head of Indiana’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and even the governor.

The short version is this: Terry died on the job in a forklift accident. An investigation conducted by the whistleblower, John Stallone, found that Amazon had failed to provide adequate safety training. Citations were issued and $28,000 in fines proposed. But Stallone’s boss, IOSHA’s director, directly contacted Amazon and discussed how they might reduce those fines and place the blame on Terry.

Stallone knows this because he was in the room and recorded the conversation, which Reveal News listened to. Amazon told TechCrunch that it “worked directly with [IOSHA] during the inspection and in follow-up discussions to provide Mr. Terry’s training records.” When I asked directly whether the company disputed Stallone’s account of the call, the representative suggested I contact the Indiana state government instead.

A few days later, Stallone said, he was called into the office of Indiana’s Labor Commissioner, Rick Ruble, and found the governor, Eric Holcomb, there as well. He was told to stop pursuing the case, according to Stallone’s account, because of — you guessed it — Indiana’s aspirations to host Amazon’s HQ2.

Stallone soon quit, and a year later, the fines were reversed and all four safety violations were struck from the record. Instead it is listed as an “unpreventable employee misconduct,” meaning Terry was legally responsible for his own death — counter to the conclusions of the investigation, which had Terry’s coworker on the record stating Amazon had failed to provide proper training.

Governor Holcomb retaliated with a statement denying any involvement with a Labor Department case, denying he ever had the meeting Stallone describes, called the allegations “fabricated” and the report “irresponsible and deliberately misleading… heinous lies.”

It’s hard to imagine why Stallone would fabricate such a meeting, when other efforts by state officials to quash these violations and fines are on record. It has not yet been shown beyond the two competing claims whether the meeting indeed took place, but presumably it was informal anyway, which provides the governor plausible deniability.

This would all be harder to believe if we hadn’t seen the frenzy of servility Amazon’s HQ2 announcement provoked nationwide. Or if the allegations of poor working conditions at Amazon warehouses hadn’t continued to pile up in the meantime. Reveal’s investigations related to the whistleblower’s case show an alarmingly high number of injuries at Amazon’s facilities.

In a statement, Amazon said that it takes “an aggressive stance on recording injuries no matter how big or small,” leading to higher numbers than other, similar work environments. As usual, workers at the warehouses dispute Amazon’s account, recalling systematic efforts to under-report and increases in injuries coming from automation.

One thing is certain: Ordering from Amazon during the holidays adds pressure to a warehouse system that by many accounts is already operating at superhuman levels — with very human costs. Perhaps shopping local is a better move this year.

NASA’s space pallet concept could land rovers on the moon cheaply and simply

Establishing an enduring presence on the Moon will mean making a lot of landings — and NASA researchers want to make those landings as reliable and cheap as possible. This robotic “pallet lander” concept would be a dead simple (as lunar landers go) way to put up to 300 kilograms of rover and payload onto the Moon’s surface.

Detailed in a technical paper published today, the lander is a sort of space pallet: a strong, basic framework that could be a unit in many a future mission. It’s still a concept and doesn’t really have a name, so space pallet will do for now.

It’s an evolution of a design that emerged in studies surrounding the VIPER mission that was intended to “minimized cost and schedule” and just get the rover to the surface safely. In a rare admission of (at least theoretically) putting cost over performance, the paper’s introduction reads:

The design of the lander was based on a minimum set of level 1 requirements where traditional risk, mass, and performance trade parameters were weighed lower than cost. In other words, the team did not sacrifice ‘good enough’ for ‘better’ or ‘best.’

It should be noted, of course, that “good enough” hardly implies a slapdash job in the context of lunar landers. It just means that getting 5 percent more tensile strength from a material that costs 50 times more wasn’t considered a worthwhile trade-off. Same reason we don’t use ebony or elm for regular pallets. Instead they’re using the space travel equivalent of solid pine boards that have been tested into the ground. (The team does admit to extrapolating a little but emphasizes that this is first and foremost a realistic approach.)

The space pallet would go up aboard a commercial launch vehicle, such as a Dragon atop a Falcon 9 rocket. The vehicle would get the pallet and its rover payload into a trans-lunar injection trajectory, and a few days later the space pallet would perform the necessary landing maneuvers: attitude control, landing site selection, braking, and a soft touchdown with the rover’s solar panels facing the sun.

Once on the surface, the rover would go on its merry way at some point in the next couple hours. The lander would take a few surface images and characterize its surroundings for the team on Earth, then shut down permanently after 8 hours or so.

Yes, unfortunately the space pallet is not intended to survive the lunar night, the researchers point out. Though any presence on the moon’s surface is a powerful resource, it’s expensive to provide the kind of power and heating infrastructure that would let the lander live through the freezing, airless cold of the Moon’s weeks-long night.

Still, it’s possible that the craft could be equipped with some low-key, self-sustaining science experiments or hardware that could be of use to others later — a passive beacon for navigation, perhaps, or an intermittent seismic sensor that detect nearby meteorite impacts.

I’ve asked for a bit more information on the possibilities of science instruments onboard, and what the alternatives might be should the space pallet not be pursued further than concept stage. But even if that were to be the case, the team writes in the paper, “it is important to note that these and other derived technologies are extensible to other lander designs and missions.”