Rise of the yes-men

Government IT projects fail because ministers don't like to be told "No"

When I agreed to join the Open Rights Group (ORG) as its executive director, I never thought I'd be spending most of my time telling people that technology doesn't work. ORG, a civil liberties campaigning group for the digital age, is staffed and funded by geeks - internet-literate technophiles who don't like to be too far from their laptops for long periods of time. Yet you'd be forgiven if, at first glance, you mistook us for Luddites or naysayers.

There is a simple reason for this. Be you politician or industry executive, you will find yourself surrounded, when you're scouting around for someone to build you a computer system or a piece of software, by yes-men. Yes-men get the contracts and worry about the details later. Details such as the putative "sealed envelope" technology that will allegedly keep all our most private details safe from prying eyes on the new NHS data spine, but which has yet to be successfully implemented. Or details such that it is a mathematical certainty that all copyright-protection locks on music downloads can be broken.

As with the story of the emperor's

new clothes, it simply isn't in a technology contractor's interest to tell a "modernisation"-crazed minister that what he's asking for is impossible to build. And although laymen might have a feel for what works in other spheres - we know 5,000-storey buildings are a little ambitious - when it comes to cryptography, or data structure, most of us don't have a clue. Which is why expert civil society organisations such as ORG are becoming so important.

This past week, ORG published a damning report into the conduct of electronic voting trials in the 3 May elections. I won't bore regular readers by repeating ORG's objections to electronic voting. Suffice it to say that - given the current frontiers of cryptographic science - secure, transparent, anonymous elections are impossible once computer-mediated voting has been introduced. Instead, I'll share my own experience of watching the effects of this technology.

I have never been closer to democracy than on the evening I spent at a counting centre as an official observer for the parish and district elections in South Bucks. As we waited for the brand-new scanning machines and tabulating software to deliver the results, I revelled in the local Lib Dems and their picnic, as well as the threat of fisticuffs between two hopefuls, each on the wrong side of 60. The dedication to local politics was overwhelming, but there was also unease.

Because, along with the new computer equipment had come new barriers, set up between the candidates and the count. The barriers were there to protect the machinery from rogue coffee spills, but the effect was the almost total disengagement of the crowd from the count process.

Which just goes to show that, sometimes, even naysayers can't tell what's going to go wrong.

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website openDemocracy.net, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Israel, Gaza and a summer of war?