How should you protect against information security threats? Paper, anyone?

Cybersecurity is at the top of just about every C-level “what keeps me up at night” list. Consider this top 10 worry list from TechRepublic last fall:

  1. Ransomware
  2. Getting breached and the media catching it first
  3. GDPR
  4. Consumers taking tech breaks
  5. Protecting themselves and critical vendors
  6. Having a false sense of security
  7. The team’s well-being
  8. Large-scale data breaches
  9. Employees’ lack of cybersecurity skills
  10. Security issues with IoT and BYOD

For those in the technology arena, the answers to these concerns are somewhat predictable. A rising tide of data encryption, constant checking to make sure operating systems are kept up to date, change management initiatives to drive individual employee accountability, diagnostic systems for early threat identification, and aggressive “what if” failure planning are but a few. But since life isn’t interesting enough amidst all of these cyber-security challenges, let me move to more unsettled information security ground: our elections.

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Paper to the Rescue?

What happens when serious digital information security concerns land in a vortex of political volatility, state-sponsored cyber attacks, long-standing state power versus federal power debates, and a lot of just plain technology naiveté?

Lest we forget, back in 2000 we had that pesky problem of the hanging chads in Florida. Congress's solution, the resultant Help America Vote Act in 2002, triggered a mad rush to electronic balloting systems.


Enter efforts by other countries, most notably Russia, to upset the integrity of electronic systems. According to the Senate Intelligence Committee, Russians tried to break into 21 state election systems in 2016, and succeeded in doing so in Illinois, although no votes were changed (not counting whatever happened in Cook County in the 1960 election).

Once again, Congress to the rescue, this time in the form of $380 million in funding to insure the integrity of elections. And one of the key recommendations is … drumroll, please ... paper?

Learning Opportunities

There’s even a new non-profit to advocate for paper ballots, Verified Voting, with a pretty nifty infographic describing the need for a return to paper (Safeguarding Our Elections: The Solutions to Vulnerabilities in Election Security) and a host of other resources. The group’s principles for new voting systems include establishing paper as the official voting record, a verification system before ballots are recorded to make sure the ballot reflects voter intentions (not sure how this would work) and a commitment to commercial off-the-shelf and open source systems.

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How Do We React to Change?

The reason I spend time on this isn't so much to make judgements on the efficacy of these reforms — I'll leave that to those far more knowledgeable. Rather, I think the entire story of moving from paper to digital and then back to paper again is reflective of a growing uncertainty in how to deal with the unexpected consequences of revolutionary technology change.

Most revolutions — including the current technology revolution — flow through a series of similar stages:

  1. There is an overthrow of the status quo.
  2. In the vacuum that results, there is a blossoming of idealism.
  3. Unexpected excesses emerge in the vacuum.
  4. There is an over-reaction to the excesses.
  5. And a new status quo emerges.

The conversation about balloting seems like a pretty typical conversation between stages three and four. As does the current conversation about social media and the consequences of ubiquitous connectivity. 

In his most recent annual commentary on the “birthday” of the web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee noted, “... the fact that power is concentrated among so few companies has made it possible to weaponize the web at scale. In recent years, we’ve seen conspiracy theories trend on social media platforms, fake Twitter and Facebook accounts stoke social tensions, external actors interfere in elections, and criminals steal troves of personal data.” Stories about AI and machine learning are long on concerns about human replacement and very short on the potential of human augmentation.

As the technology revolution enters a new and more challenging stage — a stage in which many will question its benefits — information professionals have a critical role to play. This perspective will be critical in forging a new synthesis in the wake of rapid and revolutionary change.

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