How might the IoT make politics more effective, more transparent, and more meaningful?

The 2016 presidential election in the United States was one for the record books—one that was rife with controversy on both sides of the aisle. Social media played an unprecedentedly important role in how the candidates interacted with the media, the public, and each other. In some cases, the campaigns’ connectedness fanned the flames of controversy. For their part, the public not only clung to candidates’ every tweet, but also took to their devices to find the latest information about who said what, to read what the experts were saying, or simply to find out where to vote.

The age of the IoT (Internet of Things) promises to improve many aspects of public and private life, and this may include politics—the activities associated with governance. The question is, from both a citizen’s and a politician’s standpoint, how will the IoT revolutionize politics in the years to come? By the year 2050, for instance, will IoT data play a more important role in how governments and politicians interact with the public and vice-versa? How might IoT technology change the voting process in future elections?

Mark Skilton, professor of practice in information systems management at the University of Warwick’s, www.warwick.ac.uk, Warwick Business School, says mobile devices and social media is already disrupting politics as seen in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, but this is just surface-level stuff. IoT innovation will force politicians to take notice, because if they don’t, they won’t be able to be effective world leaders in the future connected world. Skilton says: “Politicians are often left struggling trying to understand what the technology is actually doing to the national markets, its impact on taxation (and) income, and how to respond in legal and in education investment to attract and grow nations and GDP (gross domestic product).”

While the IoT is an important growth engine for many national economies, Skilton points out that automation is simultaneously making some jobs obsolete. As a result, this will create a shift in how jobs are distributed. To politicians concerned with job creation and maintaining a steady economy (aka all of them), this IoT-driven transition to a more connected workforce will matter a great deal.

“If IoT can automate many services—from ordering food to more complex self-driving cars and into more skills work, such as legal and financial services trading—how does the government need to support this (innovation) while maintaining elegancies to their constituencies?” Skilton asks. “The level of complaints and voter issues could be massive and potentially highly emotional. We have already seen some pushback on the globalization of jobs in America and American politicians seeking to repatriate work back home from overseas.”

Beyond navigating an increasingly automated workforce, politicians will also likely change the ways they connect with constituents thanks to the IoT. In theory, the data generated by the IoT will open doors to better citizen services—from enabling remote healthcare to more effectively managing resources, such as water and electricity. “In these areas, IoT can be seen to have a real critical importance for humanity and managing its transition into a connected world,” Skilton says.

 

Walking a Fine Line

Professor Philip N. Howard of Oxford University, www.ox.ac.uk, says the IoT will change the economic, cultural, and political aspects of global citizens’ lives as much as the first Internet did several decades ago. As someone who investigates the impact of digital media on political life around the world, Howard believes that if done right, the IoT can be applied in ways that improve political systems—but this is only true if it’s done right.

Like Skilton, Howard believes politicians and governments may be able to use IoT data to gain better intelligence on the public’s needs in order to meet these needs. “Policymakers will have access to deep troves of realtime data,” says Howard. “In the health and social sciences, we will be able to map out the complex causes of many kinds of problems.” To accomplish this, though, politicians will need to more closely align with data analysts to help interpret the data the IoT generates.

From a citizen’s point of view, it will be important to have an IoT that allows for civic expression. Howard says: “If the IoT can let us express ourselves civically when we want to, it will be good for citizenship.” And just like it will create more visibility into the lives, preferences, and behavior of constituents, the IoT may also create more visibility into political processes, which could benefit the general populace.

However, as the IoT industry already knows, data, when sought for malicious intent, can damage lives and businesses. Howard warns against poor planning and execution in applying IoT technologies to political systems. “The IoT is essentially a massive surveillance network,” he explains. “Tough regimes—whether democracies or dictatorships—will want to use that (IoT) infrastructure to track their populations.”

Justin McKeown, associate professor at York St. John University, www.yorksj.ac.uk, whose research focuses on the IoT and the politics of technology, believes in order to fully leverage the IoT in a positive way, as many people as possible must be involved in creating and debating it. “There is a lot of potential for enhancing governance at a local level via IoT initiatives,” McKeown says. “If the right people were enabled in this field, I think some very interesting headway could be made in terms of turning social activism on issues like homelessness, waste management, mental illness, and much more besides.”

He says by implementing technology rather than policy, politicians and their governments could channel political power to create positive social change at a grassroots level. Like Howard, though, McKeown admits that unless people of vision are charged with thinking about how to use the IoT to channel political power into constructive avenues, the technology could just become another mechanism for exerting control.

“To create a system of power is to impose a social dynamic,” McKeown explains. “Thus, the IoT is also a system of power creating a new social dynamic by altering an old one. If we do not consider this as part of the engineering processes, then we could accidentally, despite the best of intentions, create something very (negatively) disruptive indeed. We therefore need more people from very different backgrounds to become involved in its conception and creation if we are to realize the IoT in a way that is politically enabling rather than controlling.”

 

The Future of Voting

Perhaps the most direct way the IoT could impact the way constituents and politicians interact is by changing the voting process. Considering how many different types of transactions are now handled digitally, why is the U.S. still largely using paper ballots?

Pamela Smith, president of Verified Voting, www.verifiedvoting.org, a non-partisan nonprofit that advocates for legislation and regulation to promote accuracy, transparency, and verifiability of elections, says while in most transactions, consumers and businesses think about convenience first, this can’t be the case for voting. “With voting, because of what’s at stake … privacy and security have to come first,” Smith says.

On one hand, a more connected constituency, thanks to the ubiquity of mobile devices, has had a positive impact on voting. For instance, Internet-connected devices help voters obtain immediate information about candidates and their positions, issues on the ballot, and polling places.

On the other hand, taking it to the next level and allowing people to vote remotely and electronically, possibly via mobile devices, is risky—and not just from a privacy standpoint but also from a cybersecurity standpoint. Smith says: “As we saw with the recent denial of service disruption that resulted from malware that had infiltrated IoT systems, there’s a concern that the smooth running of our political processes and elections could be affected negatively by attacks.”

Put another way, Smith says a day without the Internet is probably not such a bad thing if you can choose the day. However, if it’s Election Day, and there’s an attack that takes systems down, it’s a huge problem. “Votes are not like other transactions, where the loss of some can be mitigated through other means,” Smith explains. “How many votes can we ‘afford’ to lose in any given election? Some governmental elections are decided by vote margins in the single digits … And unlike with online commerce, where end users can receive reimbursement for transactions gone awry because those transactions are not anonymous, voting has to be carried out with the preservation of secrecy of the ballot.”

When it comes to Election Day, there are no second chances, which is why, according to Smith, paper remains the preferred way of carrying out elections in the U.S. “There are a variety of ways to use the Internet for good in elections, but transmitting votes is not yet one of those, because we have yet to solve the complex technological challenges of maintaining security and anonymity of the ballot when it is transmitted from a remote location to an election server,” she says.

“There are a variety of ways to use the Internet for good in elections, but transmitting votes is not yet one of those.” —Pamela Smith, Verified Voting

Like many other realities, this reality may change as technology progresses. “There is research in what the future of voting might look like,” Smith says. “In a report authored by technologists, election officials, and other experts, they examine the value of end-to-end cryptographic methods that may be able to solve for some of the challenges in remote voting, but which as yet are unproven and would need substantial further development to determine if they could work for this purpose.”

Until then, the IoT—and more specially, the data generated by the IoT—will impact politics in other ways. For politicians, governments, and citizens alike, York St. John University’s McKeown says IoT data will be transformative in politics … eventually. To get to there, he says we need to start thinking differently about data. We need to put experts together from a number of fields and with varying vested interests to determine how the IoT can make political systems and processes more effective, more transparent, and more meaningful. “The problem is that, at the moment at least, much of the data made available isn’t very meaningful,” McKeown explains. “Everyone is processing, but no one is really thinking.”

“Everyone is processing, but no one is really thinking.” —Justin McKeown, York St. John University

Bethanie Hestermann is an editor-at-large for Connected World magazine.