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February 06, 2006
California Mulls Open Source
In some ways, it's not quite as bold as Massachusetts plan to replace parts of Microsoft Office with OpenDocument by 2007, but this Wednesday, the State of California is holding a hearing to discuss the pros and cons of open source software too. There's no formal proposal but Senator Debra Bowen (D-Redondo Beach) wants more information. She's chairwoman of the committee that governs Senate elections and is concerned by polls that show that nationwide only 48% of people are confident their votes are counted accurately. Would they feel better if they could see the nuts and bolts of how the votes are being collected and reported, as opposed to just trusting a traditional vendor like Diebold?
We are a pretty techy state, but I'm not sure how many people will care. Most people don't even realize when they're using open source software. But for those who will weigh in, I'm expecting warring conspiracy theories.
There's the usual fear, uncertainty and doubt about open source. That it's unreliable, hard to implement with hidden costs, and not something to trust absolutely mission critical applications with quite yet. I'd call election results pretty mission critical to a state.
On the other hand, as Bowen notes in the link above, many have been concerned about the accuracy of electronic voting systems, the lack of a paper trail, and potential partisan conflicts of interest. To them, software that's open with a lot of eyes on it probably seems a safer option.
And there are other potential benefits. Say California implements a fantastic electronic voting system. If it's based on open source code, arguably other states, cities, or even emerging democracies could borrow it. The more locales using it, probably the bigger the developer base, tweaking and scrutinizing the software-- making sure it can't be hacked or forged. Of course, most open source software is less expensive and that too is a plus when we're talking government spending.
And there's a certain poetic justice to it. Open source grew out of the free software movement-- meaning freedom to view and access the source code, not free as in price.
But, I wonder, is there enough broad confidence in open source to trust it with election outcomes? I tend to think when it comes to something like this open source is better than one proprietary vendor. Call me a dinosaur, but the lack of a paper trail greatly worries me. I think my precinct offers both paper and electronic ballots and I opt for paper every time. Would open source ease my concerns? Not enough to go electronic, given the option. But if that option is going to be taken away at some point, I'm glad the state is looking beyond proprietary vendors.
I know a lot of open source boosters read "Tech Beat," so I imagine a good deal of you share this view. But I?? curious if anyone is worried about open source software counting your votes? Is my view of the software getting skewed by hearing one too many open source success stories from CIOs?
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I have tried open source (Linux Suse) and found that it doesn't offer the ease of use that MS Windows provides.
If I could easily add applications like a media player, digital camera apps , others with open source as easily as I can in Windows, then I would jump to open source. Unfortunately, I have not had that kind of experience so I stay with Windows apps.
Posted by: Richard at February 8, 2006 11:25 AM
Rather than ease of use or convenience, I think the question is more about trust and confidence. Do you trust Yahoo's and Google's systems? They use a fair amount of open source technology.
I personally don't like the idea of my vote going literally into a black box. A transparent one would be better.
Posted by: JimMc at February 8, 2006 12:27 PM
To respond to Richard's feedback comment and JimMc's comment:
"If I could easily add applications like a media player, digital camera apps , others with open source as easily as I can in Windows, then I would jump to open source. Unfortunately, I have not had that kind of experience so I stay with Windows apps."
Perhaps you should try Ubuntu Linux (they send it to you for free (https://shipit.ubuntu.com) and the excellent Ubuntu Forums for Q&A (http://www.ubuntuforums.org). Finding the right application for the right purpose is simple, easy, and free with Ubuntu Linux. Regarding media player(s) on Windows, one must remember that the closed formats used by a convicted monopoly is at the center of the problem and one of the strong reasons to move to open source. If all audio/video formats were open, it wouldn't matter much what media player was used, it's all about the codecs being used and whether they are open or not. This is the same situation with closed document formats and requiring a Windows program to open them. Do you see where this is headed? I, for one, will never use another product or service from Microsoft ever again. I refuse to be locked into using a particular OS, media player, etc. to open a closed document/media format. To me, that is insane. With our world become ever smaller, we all need to come together with open formats and open source programs so regardless of the OS we choose, we can all use the same content.
"Rather than ease of use or convenience, I think the question is more about trust and confidence. Do you trust Yahoo's and Google's systems? They use a fair amount of open source technology."
Apples and oranges, IMO. I could use either open or closed source to do something good or bad, but let's deal with your question as it is presented, minus the companies mentioned. Do I trust closed source or open source? The answer is obvious: open source, and you mention "I personally don't like the idea of my vote going literally into a black box. A transparent one would be better." which IMO illustrates the point I am about to make: With an open source program/OS you can see the source code, it is reviewed by others, anyone can point out bugs and provide feedback. The same is just not possible with closed source, only the keepers of the closed source can see the code, and unless they share it with others (which usually doesn't happen in the case of big corporations) you cannot be sure what lurks beneath the surface. You cannot audit it yourself and you have to place blind trust in additional closed source applications to scan it for viruses, adware, and other forms of malware, and then slather on a closed source software firewall as many do, which you cannot see the source code of either. So how many blackboxes are being stacked together? The reason why there are so many thousands of security issues with closed source is obvious: it is not free for public review.
I'm sure millions of people will line up like sardines to fork over a bunch of cash for another version of a closed source OS, because they've been locked into the closed document/media formats and know nothing other than what they have been used to.
If more people would spend the time to research the history of computing they would notice that for a long time the code to programs were free, until a monopoly was established. Innovation and freedom has been stifled but with Linux and the powerful open source movement, we have a chance to allow ourselves to experience freedom in computing once again.
The question is, with people's minds filled with news of Britney Spears and Brad Pitt/Jolie, will the majority of people have the attention to care? Or will they continue to remain locked in their proprietary OS and pay for closed formats for another decade?
If you care about freedom and future generations, you need to look to open source for real change.
Posted by: Pat at February 9, 2006 04:19 PM
Though I agree with JimMc's comment, I wonder why 'ease of use' doesn't come up when discussing the viruses, trojan horses and spy ware Windows attracts. Nothing is easier to use than an operating system that just works. Linux has fit that bill in my household for the past six years.
Posted by: midnightcommander at February 9, 2006 07:37 PM
I think the openness needed is not the source code of the computer systems, but in the processes followed by the states in tabulating the results. For example, use electronic balloting with paper backup, report the preliminary results based on the electronic returns but certify the results only after the counts have been confirmed by two mechanical counts of the paper ballots, to verify the reliability of the system. Personally I suspect that concern over accurate vote counting has more to do with practices at misbehaving poll sites and politically charged recounts than with the performance of the majority of counting procedures.
Posted by: Dan at February 10, 2006 11:01 PM