crypto and public policy

The Perception Problem: When Experts and Non-Experts Disagree

Filed under: Security & Crypto August 4, 2004 @ 1:27 pm

CNET reports that voters are not worried about voting machines, but experts are.

Some people are using this observation as an excuse to dismiss the worries of security experts. To paraphrase Avi Rubin, it makes about as much sense to ask voters what they think of election machine security as it does to ask patients what they think of various artery graft options in heart bypass surgery. If you want an expert opinion, ask the doctor, not the patient.

However, that’s not to say CNET’s report is useless. The voter’s perception, like the patient’s, is tremendously important. A democratic election can only succeed if it is actually secure and if it is perceived to be secure. The question to ask is: why have the experts been unable to communicate their worries to voters?

I don’t have a satisfying answer to that question. Surely, part of the problem is that security experts are sometimes not very good at marketing their ideas. Another part is that certain vendors are spending much time and money convincing people that their machines are secure and no further discussion is required. Yet another part is that the security issue has become entangled with the voter disenfranchisement issue, because the new, worrisome machines also happen to be the machines that, for the first time, provide people with disabilities the ability to vote on their own.

All of these issues can be resolved in time. One issue, however, will probably always haunt the election problem: people don’t understand security. It’s part of the reason why auto insurance is legally mandated. If it weren’t, many people simply wouldn’t get it because the risk/protection tradeoff is not a natural connection to them.

Whatever opinion one holds about voting machine security, let’s remember one thing: voter opinion on voting security matters as an indicator of how well experts are doing their job, not as another input into the security debate.


  1. Aaron Swartz:

    Another answer might be media coverage. I looked at a couple articles in the New York Times about it and it was a total whitewash.

  2. Ben Adida:

    Yeah, you’re right. I guess the cynic in me wants to say what problem *isn’t* caused by bad media coverage these days?

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