Letters to the editor

Encourage ACM to Address U.S. Election Integrity

  1. Introduction
  2. USACM Responds:
  3. Side with ACM Ethical Values
  4. References
  5. Footnotes
Letters to the Editor, illustration

In the spirit of Moshe Y. Vardi's call, in his "Vardi's Insights" column "Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility" (Jan. 2018), for ACM to "… be more active in addressing social responsibility issues raised by computing technology," we urge the ACM U.S. Public Policy Council to undertake a study of the technological infrastructure for U.S. elections. In a paper to be published in the Proceedings of ETHICOMP 2018,3 we surveyed the widespread weaknesses in this infra-structure. We found, for historical and constitutional reasons, local control of elections, including equipment, processes, and procedures, is a prerogative jealously guarded. Practices and procedures even in neighboring counties can differ significantly, a factor in the presidential vote in Florida in 2000.

The bitterly contested aftermath of the related Florida recount led to federal legislation—the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002—concerning voting machines and registration procedures. Although intended to bring a measure of order and uniformity to the existing patchwork of state election systems, the legislation was hastily drafted and carelessly implemented, giving rise to problems that have plagued U.S. elections ever since.

Chronic problems with HAVA implementation have led to studies by the U.S. National Research Council and the U.S. Public Policy Committee of the ACM published in 20061 that had some effect in moving state and local officials toward adopting more reliable voting equipment and more secure processes for maintaining accurate voter-registration lists. Nevertheless, electronic voting machines and voter-registration lists remain vulnerable to attackers intent on interfering in U.S. elections. The profound shock administered by foreign actors trying to affect the result of the 2016 election is a call to action. ACM should once again mobilize the prestige and expertise of the computing profession to carry out a rigorous study to identify ways to restore confidence in the integrity of U.S. elections.

Some of the vulnerabilities we described in our paper, including politically motivated actions by state election officials and circulation of false information on social media, are not susceptible to easy solution. However, without jeopardizing the principle of local control, some problems in the U.S. election infrastructure can be eliminated or mitigated through sensible national standards and practices that represent the settled judgment of computing researchers and public-policy experts.

In the view of political scientist John Kingdon,4 an issue can get on the political agenda only when three streams coincide: the problem; the solution; and the political will. It is clear that, in the U.S., we have a problem. The emerging consensus about standards for voting machines, computer databases of registered voters, electronic poll books, and risk-limiting audits constitutes a solution to several aspects of the problem. Kingdon underscores the critical role of policy entrepreneurs in building acceptance for solutions and creating couplings among the three critical streams. In today's polarized state of national discourse, the ACM U.S. Public Policy Council2 is uniquely positioned to lend its trusted voice to the task of repairing civic confidence in this foundation of American democracy.

William M. Fleischman and Kathleen V. Antaki, Villanova, PA, USA

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USACM Responds:

We share the authors' concerns, as USACM has continued to engage in this area since its cited 2006 report through a variety of mechanisms, including congressional testimony, responses to formal government requests for information or comments, and letters to government bodies. USACM's most constrained resource is the time of its volunteers and limited staff. We thus try to avoid duplicating the efforts of others, including work being done by Verified Voting and the National Academies, both involving USACM members. There is, however, always more that can be done, and we would welcome the authors' contributions to USACM.

Stuart Shapiro, Chair, ACM U.S. Public Policy Council

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Side with ACM Ethical Values

Bob Toxen's letter to the editor "Get ACM (and Communications) Out of Politics" (May 2018) said ACM was becoming too left leaning by taking decisions with more than a tinge of political motivation. In particular, Toxen said ACM should focus more squarely on technology. But politics is indeed inescapable when addressing policies that directly affect the field of computer science; for instance, immigration policy in the U.S., as well as every other country, has a direct effect on whether technology companies are able to attract and retain skilled workers, no matter where they might come from, in turn affecting the development of many technologies. Where would we be today if, say, Sergey Brin had been unable to emigrate to the U.S. from the Soviet Union in the 1970s or been separated from his parents at the border? Would Google even exist today if he had been forced to stay home? What would be the state of computing technology if Google had never existed? Likewise, passage in March 2016 of the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act in North Carolina was a direct violation of the ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct,6 which obligates ACM and its membership to be fair to all and not discriminate. How could ACM in good conscience host a conference in a jurisdiction that had discriminated against some of its own membership? It would be just and within the ACM mandate to change conference venues to respect those values.

ACM must also recognize that systems can be deployed for harmful, as well as for good, purposes. A central pillar of the ACM Code5 is to avoid harm to others, requiring ACM and its membership to take moral and ethical decisions on the use of technology that might seem to many otherwise reasonable professionals as political. Consider Google's work with the U.S. Department of Defense to develop AI systems that could enable drones to more effectively identify targets on the ground. Many Google employees have objected to the program due in part to the potential harm it might cause innocent civilians. Following this outcry from its own employees, as well as from the broader community, Google decided to not renew the program.6

ACM could, as Toxen suggested, remain narrowly focused on technology, leaving moral and ethical discussion to the political arena or engage in ways that might force it to take sides in the political arena. In his 1986 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Holocaust witness Elie Wiesel said, "We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented." In light of recent political and social events and advances in technology, particularly AI and, potentially, autonomous systems, today might be the right time to build a community, perhaps even a special interest group, dedicated to issues of ethics and public policy.

James Simpson, Chatham, ON, Canada

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