Open-Source vs. Closed-Source And Why Democracy Depends On It

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Background: Source Code, Open Source, and Closed Source
In the world of software development, there are two major schools of thought.  In one, source code, which is basically just a set of instructions for a computer, is developed in private and is generally kept secret.  This is the closed-source model of development that companies like Microsoft use to develop Windows, Office, and dozens of other applications that you may use daily.  In contrast, the source code for open source software is readily available.  Anyone is free to download, examine, or even modify one’s own copy of open source software.  Two examples are the linux-based Ubuntu operating system and OpenOffice.org office suite.

When it comes to operating systems, the choice between open and closed source software is often a matter of security. That is, in the closed-source world, security largely depends on the secrecy of the source code. Since the source code can only be reviewed by a finite number of experts within the firm that created the software, there are inevitably mistakes that slip through the cracks. Mistakes that are found after the software is released can only be fixed by the software vendor, and the whole world has to wait until a fix is available. Having access to source code makes it much, much easier to find mistakes. That’s why closed-source vendors keep it a secret.  So, when source code of closed-source software gets leaked to the public, it’s considered a disaster, especially when most of the world depends on the software in question.

In contrast, source code in the Open Source community is available for the whole world to see. Mistakes that would otherwise go unnoticed are caught early in the development process, and mistakes that are found after the initial release can be quickly fixed by anyone.  That fix (usually in the form of a software “patch”) can then be made available to the rest of the community.  It is not necessary to wait for a fix from the software vendor.

Source Code and Voting Machines
I could drone on about how the closed-source development model is responsible for almost all of the most damaging computer worms, but instead let’s look at how these two development models apply to voting machines.  This is actually very simple.  Every computerized voting machine I have ever seen implemented operates using closed-source software that runs on closed-source operating systems.  As long as that’s the case, worrying about physical security and chain-of-custody is almost pointless.  As soon as someone finds a way to exploit a mistake in the software, he could exploit the mistake to manipulate the voting machine.

Premier Election Solutions (formerly Diebold Election Systems, Inc or DESI) has the lion’s share of the computerized voting machine market. Their source code, which was written using the closed-source development model, has been leaked more than once.  A book could be written about the security flaws in their code, but suffice to say that anyone with access to a voting terminal (read: tech-savvy voters) could completely change the ballot file.

Closed-source software has no place on public voting machines!  The very notion is ridiculous, but it’s a growing trend in the United States.

Hacking Democracy
If you’re still not convinced that America is facing a serious problem, please watch this video in entirety.  The last half hour is the most important part:

One comment to “Open-Source vs. Closed-Source And Why Democracy Depends On It”

  1. Comment by Chris Brunner .com » Blog Archive » Counting Votes is Pointless When Voting Machines Are Closed-Source:

    [...] Although I’m not a very eloquent writer, I’ve tried to stress the importance of voting machines running on Open Source software, instead of Closed Source software. [...]

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