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Unhackable Elections, Ethics and the New Frontier in Safeguarding Democratic Institutions

“There was always going to be a Cambridge Analytica,” Julian Wheatland says in the new Netflix documentary The Great Hack. An alarming statement, however, what is more alarming is the lack of urgency and coordination at a global level to ensure that going forward democratic institutions are 'unhackable'.


The questions that should have been asked and acted on are; Now that we have seen what a hacked election looks like, what does an unhackable election look like? Are electoral bodies, civil society and citizens active in civic engagement ahead of the curve on this?


In this era of post-truth geopolitics and interference on electoral integrity. I can only think of one entity looking into safeguarding democracy - the Transatlantic Commission on Electoral Integrity. But this is purely focused on European/American process and on preventing meddling by Russia and other 'autocratic' countries.


Increasingly, conversation on rights and inclusion in the digital age, are on-going. Highlighting the inherently colonial and extractive design of technology and data as it currently exists. Some perspectives of these discussions captured in my writing here and here. Netflix's documentary The Great Hack focused on the weaponizing of infrastructure that underpins democratic societies by data companies and other agents. It spoke to how specific actors hacked the Internet, media, and even voting databases to sow discombobulation, discontent, and disunity. The 2016 Brexit referendum, the 2016 U.S. presidential primaries and general election, the 2017 French presidential election and closer to home elections in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, they systematically sought to skew the democratic debate and engagement.


This lack of urgency in coordination and action by civil society, governance bodies and a largely digitally illiterate, civically engaged public is one that is of grave concern.

As the use and impact of digital technologies become pervasive, we need to establish societal and policy guidelines in order for such systems to remain human-centric, serving humanity’s values and ethical principles. These systems must be developed and should operate in a way that is beneficial to people. There needs to be thinking on technology and data that goes beyond simply reaching functional goals and addressing technical problems.


There needs to be space created where communities can engage in collaboration with techno-industries, civil society and governance bodies in deep self-reflection. Conscious contemplation, where ethical considerations help us define how we wish to live.



Because of their nature, the full benefit of these technologies will be attained only if they are aligned with society’s defined values and ethical principles. Collaborative and inclusive work is needed to establish frameworks to guide and inform dialogue and debate around the non-technical implications of these technologies and data, in particular related to ethical aspects.


With an understanding that “ethical” goes beyond moral constructs and includes social fairness, sustainability, and our desire for self-determination. Understanding that ethical practices can be Western (e.g., Aristotelian, Kantian), Eastern (e.g., Shinto, School of Mo, Confucian), African (e.g., Ubuntu), inclusive and varied in tradition, honoring holistic definitions of societal prosperity is essential versus pursuing one-dimensional goals of increased productivity or gross domestic product (GDP).


Technology and data should prioritize and have as their goal the explicit honoring of our inalienable fundamental rights and dignity as well as the increase of human flourishing and sustainability.


These collaborative and inclusive frameworks would need to act as a living document to ensure adaptability and agileness in response to technology and big data companies inherent exponentiality, leap-frog capability, ability and existence.


Serving as critical guidance and key reference for the work of technologists, educators and policymakers in the coming years.




While focused primarily on A/IS, the First Edition of the IEEE's Ethically Aligned Design is a great example on how to take an in depth look at the ethical implementation of technology and data worldwide from principles to practice. This specific framework of thinking within the publication, is a great start. It is intended to provide guidance for standards, regulation or legislation for the design, manufacture and use of A/IS, as well as serve as a key reference for the work of policymakers, technologists and educators.


This release culminated a three-year, globally open and iterative process involving thousands of global experts. During this period, two versions have been released as requests for input and attracted 500 pages of feedback. Those versions were internationally recognized by governments, inter-governmental bodies, academia, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and industry. They also informed collaborations on A/IS governance with the United Nations, the European Commission and Parliament, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, as well as with UNESCO and UNICEF, among others.


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