Month: August 2018

BlockchainComputer SecurityExpert Witnesslegaltech

Blockchain Voting Election 2018: Expert Analysis of West Virginia’s Plan

This November, West Virginians deployed overseas will have the opportunity to vote via smart phone through a Blockchain-based application. Given the existing concerns of election integrity, I couldn’t help but reach out for expert analysis.

Hey, did you know that election integrity is kind of big deal? Have you been watching any number of news stations in the last few years? Our country has not stopped talking about election meddling, voter fraud, electronic voting, and wide variety of related topics, for two or more years, give or take.

If you are not aware of these concerns, you must be living under a rock. Please make room under the rock as I’d like to join you. I do my best to ignore the talking heads because I’ve found they add no value to my life (anyone else feel that way about the twenty-four hour television news cycle?).

Before I digress entirely, my point is election integrity and vote verification are legitimate concerns and imperative for the success of our democracy. As such, broadcast news covers the subject extensively.

Rarely, however, do these broadcasters address the micro-issues. This is why I choose to get my news from a variety of different publications, most of which I read online. That’s how I found this article: Experts Criticize West Virginia’s Plan for Smartphone Voting, from Ars Technica. Many of my regular readers know I appreciate the legal and policy analysis from Ars Technica. Routinely, I use it as a jumping off point for further research. The publication often acts as a catalyst for blog posts. In this case, I’d been waiting for the opportunity to discuss the Blockchain topic and get insights from expert witnesses on the subject.

The issue of a Blockchain-based application being used, to allow soldiers stationed abroad, the opportunity to vote through their smart phone was the perfect topic. Bitcoin (a Blockchain-based crytocurrency) is already being written and discussed extensively. Voting, through a Blockchain application, is getting less coverage and is therefore more interesting to me.

Much of what I’ve read about the Blockchain is hyperbolic. I’ve read on more than one occasion that “the Blockchain cannot be hacked.” On its face, that statement appears illegitimate. There is no such thing as 100% secure. So, how do we plan on safely using a smart phone app to conduct one of our country’s most sensitive civic processes?

According to the Ars Technica article, West Virginia did a limited run of the system (Voatz is the name of the app) for the primary election in May. The article further provided, “West Virginia’s secretary of state told CNN that the pilot worked well and that the system passed four audits of various parts of the system. So this November, the state is planning to offer the system more broadly to West Virginians deployed overseas.”

Naturally, I have a lot of questions about the security and reliability of the voting application offered by Voatz. So I reached out to one of our computer science experts who has studied the Blockchain and recently published articles on the topic.

Computer Science and Systems Expert Witness – Dr. Stephen Castell

Dr. Stephen Castell is a computer science and systems expert witness with over 30 years of experience. As an expert witness, Dr. Castell has acted in over 100 major cases including the largest and longest computer software actions to have come to trial in the English High Court. Most recently, Dr. Castell contributed to the 200th issue of Computer Law and Security Review (CLSR), with his paper titled, “The Future Decisions of RoboJudge HHJ Arthur Ian Blockchain: Dread, Delight or Derision?Find out more about Dr. Castell by visiting his website: www.castellconsulting.com.

I’ve been working with Dr. Castell for more than eight years. We always have delightful conversations and “geek out” together over emerging technologies. Our recent conversations have, of course, covered the rapidly changing legal technology space.

Here are the questions I posed and the answers provided by Dr. Castell:

Nick: Can you describe Blockchain technology for the lay reader?

Dr. Castell: In its elemental form, a Blockchain is simply a decentralized database system – digital ledgers that store transaction data, distributed across many nodes.  It has a linked list data structure, with each block (an aggregated set of data) containing a ‘hash’ of the previous block.  Each block is formed by a ‘proof-of-work algorithm’, through which consensus of this distributed system is obtained via the longest possible chain.  A ‘traded’ cryptocurrency Blockchain (e.g. Bitcoin) is a shared public chain: in principle everyone has access to the chain, not only to read the information on the chain, but also to append new blocks on the chain.  This is known as an unpermissioned chain.  The West Virginia voting application is likely to be a permissioned chain, where, through public key cryptography, access control can be implemented during setting up of the chain so that differentiated access can apply – both voters and those managing and controlling the voting process can differentially record, and/or interrogate, votes and voting data added to its Blockchain.

Nick: Is a Blockchain-based voting system secure?

Dr. Castell: The Blockchain in and of itself provides strong cryptographic security.  However, ICT expert professionals bear in mind that not only are there no finalised international standards for Blockchain (eight  standards are in development under ISO/TC 307), but also there is far more to specifying, designing, developing, testing, deploying and maintaining an appropriate complete QA’d application than just the Blockchain element.  The security of the complete system needs to be addressed and designed-in from the start, irrespective of the use case for the Blockchain.  And whether to use a Blockchain as a component at all for a given business requirement such as public elections is a critical initial feasibility exercise that the expert knows is essential, as much from a security perspective as any other.

Nick: We know that electronic voting systems are vulnerable to hacking. Can Blockchain-based voting systems also be hacked?

Dr. Castell: Anything can be hacked, and electronic voting systems are no different.  Back in the late 1980s, I carried out a major definitive study, commissioned by the British H M Treasury, on the admissibility of computer evidence in court and the legal reliability/security of IT systems (The APPEAL Report, 1990, May, Eclipse Publications, ISBN 1-870771-03-6).  This concluded with what became known as my ‘First Dictum’:  “You cannot secure an ontologically unreliable technology by use of an ontologically unreliable technology”.  Nothing has changed.  Commercial computer hardware and operating systems, including smartphones, remain essentially ‘open’, and ontologically unreliable.

Nick: Is it the Blockchain that could be compromised or is it more likely a voter’s smartphone would be compromised by a hacker?

Dr. Castell: A well-engineered and implemented Blockchain distributed voting ledger should itself be as immune to compromise as its cryptography can provide.  But the voter’s smart phone security, and the overall voting application, are only as sound as whatever has been designed-in to the whole system – and we know that smartphones have for sure in the past been hacked.  It is not clear that the proposed West Virginia smartphone application would be any more (or less) hackable than anything else hitherto.

Nick: What sort of checks and balances would you expect for a Blockchain-based voting system before implementation?

Dr. Castell: It would seem an obvious (constitutional?) requirement that votes must always be manually-countable in any US election, in the event of suspected error or lack of trust in the reported result, whether through suspected deliberate tampering or compromise, accident or incident, random system malfunction, or whatever else, and particularly if the result is legally challenged in court.  Any smart phone app voting system must therefore always be designed so that its operation, and the voting data recorded, are auditable for integrity, accuracy and reliability ‘by hand’ – that is surely the most basic check and balance.

Lawyer Jonathan Bolls is a Magistrate, and Chief Election Officer, in Fairfax County, Virginia, who had personal experience of the consequences of unreliable computer systems, as a past victim of technical problems saving Bar Exam essays using suspect software provided by the Virginia Board of Bar Examiners (I provided expert opinion on his behalf – see http://jonathanbolls.blogspot.com/).  He notes that US citizens are passionate about the integrity of elections:  “For Blockchain technology, where someone is voting on their phone from overseas, they would want to consider that in doing so they potentially waive their rights to have their vote counted should a re-count be necessary.  We have actually gone the other way: removed our high-tech touchscreen voting systems and returned to the paper ballot.  If ever we need to check voting numbers we hand count”.

Aside from manual auditability, before implementation it is vital that ‘Proof of Concept’ projects be thoroughly executed, carefully trialing any proposed smartphone public voting system, prior to actual ‘go live’ for real.  Such Pilot Trials or Proving Systems are essential, with their scale, planning, operation, data and results, and assessment thereof, monitored and carried out by independent experts.

Nick: In your expert opinion, would you trust a Blockchain-based voting system to accurately register votes?

Dr. Castell: Deliberate hacking or compromise apart, there is no reason why a well-engineered and implemented Blockchain-based voting system, with careful professional expert involvement in its design and trialing before go-live, should not accurately register votes.  However, I do not consider that a so-called ‘trustless’ Blockchain-based voting system removes the need for a Trusted Third Party legally responsible for its operation and security.  ‘Who you gonna sue when it goes wrong?’ is still an essential consideration, and the Blockchain itself, nothing magical, ‘just another computer system’, cannot be sued.

See:

  • https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1XSpq_654J6Hkp  ‘The future decisions of RoboJudge HHJ Arthur Ian Blockchain: Dread, delight or derision?’, Stephen Castell, Computer Law & Security Review, Volume 34, Issue 4, August 2018, Pages 739-753.
  • Commission of the European Community. Green paper on the security of information systems, ver. 4.2.1, 1994.
  • S. Castell, Code of practice and management guidelines for trusted third party services, INFOSEC Project Report S2101/02, 1993.

Conclusion:

What are your thoughts? Would you trust a smart phone, Blockchain-based voting application? Please share your comments below!

UPDATE (08/16/2018):

Our friends over at the Robinette Legal Group, located in Morgantown, West Virginia, wrote a complementary piece to this blog. The author of the piece, Terri Robinette, did an exceptional job elaborating on prior “uses” of Blockchain in Sierra Leone and describing how West Virginia is legitimately the first to truly test this technology. She further described election security and fraud in West Virginia. Take a look at her article below:

Smartphone Voting App for Deployed West Virginia Military

Allergy-ImmunologyExpert WitnessWildfires

Wildfire Smoke: Allergy, Dermatology, and Respiratory Expert Suggestions

With wildfires raging across California, smoke, pollutants and allergens are filling our skies. Impacting not only those in the immediate vicinity of fires, but people throughout the state.

As many of our friends, colleagues, and readers are aware, the Experts.com corporate office is situated in Stockton, California. We are in the heart of the Central Valley and a safe distance from the roaring wildfires. However, we are surrounded by these fires and the airborne pollutants they are emitting.

The Mendocino Complex Fire (now determined to be the largest wildfire in California history) is occurring approximately 200 miles to the Northwest of our office. Those westerly winds, however, are blowing the smoke directly through the Central Valley.

The valley is known for terrible allergens, due in large part, to our amazing agricultural industry (responsible for producing somewhere in the neighborhood of 33-50% of the nation’s produce, depending on your data source). What we have been experiencing in the last couple of weeks is, for lack of a better phrase, a perfect storm of allergens and pollutants.

Stockton, and the Central Valley, are not alone. Smoke from the 19 (at the time of this writing) active wildfires in the state, are contributing to all kinds of allergy, respiratory distress and illness for Californians. As smoke does not recognize border lines, the smoke is impacting people across the West.

Here is what I know from personal experience. Children and older adults are most at risk from the airborne pollutants and allergies. Outdoor activities for these individuals should be minimal. The same goes for pets. Those afflicted with allergies or compromised respiratory systems should also minimize outdoor activity. You should also check your air quality daily. If you’re in California, here’s where to check: www.airnow.gov.

smoke-1-.png

Here is a quick look of the haze around our office. Skies are normally bright blue.

smoke-2.png

Here is the sun trying to peak through the smoke. This is an improvement over yesterday.

 

Beyond the above, I cannot tell you much more. I have been choosing to limit my outdoor activity and that of my dog because she has significant allergies and respiratory health problems. She’s also elderly. To better elaborate on fire related exposures, including allergies and respiratory impacts, I have reached out to one of our expert witnesses.

Allergy, Immunology and Dermatology Expert Witness – Dr. Ernest Charlesworth

Ernest N. Charlesworth, MD, is a Diplomate of the American Board of Dermatology, the American Board of Internal Medicine, American Board of Allergy & Immunology, and the American Board of Diagnostic Laboratory Immunology. He has over 40 years of experience in his field of expertise. He is one of only a few United States physicians who is board certified in both Allergy / Immunology and Dermatology.

Dr. Charlesworth specializes in respiratory diseases, Asthma, immunologic and allergic disorders, Allergic Pulmonary Disease, and more. He is located in Bronte, Texas. You can learn more about his expertise here. Below are my questions and Dr. Charlesworth’s answers.

Nick: What are the most common smoke-related allergic reactions?

Dr. Charlesworth: Smoke is a pulmonary irritant, even to healthy lungs, but for individuals with allergic asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, it has the potential to be life-threatening. Not only is the smoke an irritant, it may also contain allergic particles ranging from the oil in poison ivy (& poison sumac) to grass, weed, & tree pollen. The inflammation induced by smoke and pollutants release a cascade of inflammatory chemicals called cytokines. These cytokines augment and intensity of the allergic response.

Nick: Do allergy medications help at all when dealing with fire/smoke related exposure?

Dr. Charlesworth: Yes, individuals with inhalant allergies & asthma they will experience an increased need for using their “rescue” inhalers.   The rescue inhaler contains a bronchodilator (usually albuterol) that helps to relax the smooth muscle that surround the bronchi, thus allowing an increase in the ease of air flow in the lungs.  It is equally important that those with allergic asthma use their “control” medication which usually contain an anti-inflammatory steroid.  One of the problems with smoke inhalation is that it increases the inflammation in an already inflamed & irritable airway. This additional inflammation has the potential to push even a well controlled asthmatic patient over the edge and require urgent intervention in the setting of a hospital emergency department.

Nick: Personally, I fight allergies all year, but with the smoke-filled air, they seem to be worse. Is that just a result of greater airborne pollutants?

Dr. Charlesworth: The simple answer is, yes.  The irritants in environmental smoke “prime” the lungs & mucous membranes resulting in an exaggerated response to their allergies.

Nick: For those with respiratory illnesses, who are in smoky areas of California, what can they do to limit further damage to their compromised systems?

Dr. Charlesworth: The first step is to recognize that they are at much greater risk than the non-allergic population.  This includes having an action plan that stresses regular use of their prescribed allergy medications.  It’s also important to recognize the control inhalers should not be used for immediate relief.  Finally, lungs require moisture & humidity to function in a healthy manner.   Dry smoke-filled air will dehydrate the mucous membranes.  Accordingly, the use of room humidifiers can be of immense help. In addition, they should have an evacuation plan, even in the absence of general evacuation orders.  The use of filtration masks are recommended when outdoors and when indoors the air conditioning filters need to be changed.

Nick: Aside from staying indoors, what other items would you suggest for those currently exposed to California wildfire smoke?

Dr. Charlesworth: See above.  A plan for early evacuation to outside the atmospheric area affected by the smoke & fire may be the most important.  This might be a good time to take a vacation and visit family outside the affected area.

Nick: Please share any other information you think is appropriate for those exposed to smoke and other pollutants from wildfires…

Dr. Charlesworth: For those allergic to poison ivy, oak, & sumac there is a real danger that allergic oils aerosolized can cause not only respiratory but also an allergic contact dermatitis to exposed skin.  For this reason, I would recommend long sleeves and staying indoors.  If outside exposure is unavoidable, the use of a thin application of a petroleum cream (such as Vasoline) may be helpful.  Lastly, one should remember that most antihistamines  have a side effect of drying out the mucous membranes which will have a deleterious effect on those allergic individuals exposed to smoke.  This particularly true for diphenhydramine (Benadryl) and less so with loratidine and cetirizine.  There are also late complications that include an increased vulnerability to secondary infection of both the lungs and the sinuses.  For protection of the sinuses, I recommend irrigation with dilute salt water a couple of times each day.

Conclusion

The last two blog posts have been entirely inspired by the events taking place in California. The goal is to provide some information beneficial to our sisters and brothers in the state.

Stay healthy!

 

 

Expert WitnessInsuranceWildfires

California Wildfires: Property Damage & Restoration Expert Witness Insights

As of this writing, the Carr Fire in Redding, is considered the seventh most destructive wildfire in California history. It is just one of 17 active wildfires in the state.

In the past week, California has witnessed an intense round of wildfires. As I sit safely in my office reading the news about those being evacuated, or worse, I cannot help but empathize. The wildfires last Fall had the same impact on me. In fact, the concern for others dealing with disaster compelled me to write this piece last year. It covers topics  of evidence collection and insurance policy review, in the aftermath of a California wildfire. The only goal was to provide useful information to those impacted.

The same compulsion to provide helpful information is felt today. Smoke in the Central Valley has been an awful, constant reminder, that many are losing their homes, businesses, and lives. Just 200 miles North of our office, citizens of Redding California are experiencing the Carr Fire. Yesterday, according to USA Today, the Carr Fire was claimed to be the “seventh most destructive” fire in California history. Here is some further information about the Carr Fire from USA Today:

“Firefighters from 16 states are aiding the effort. The state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection – Cal Fire – reported promising headway Tuesday on the most devastating of the blazes: the Carr Fire in and around this city of 92,000. The death toll here is six, including two firefighters. More than 170 square miles have burned and almost 900 homes destroyed, making it the seventh-most destructive fire in state history.

While 10,000 people were allowed to return to their homes Monday, more than 25,000 people remain evacuated. And the fire was only 27 percent contained.”

According to the Cal Fire fire map, there are 17 active wildfires in California at the time of this writing. That number does not include contained fires. Firefighters throughout the state have a massive job ahead. Also, the last time I wrote about California wildfires was December, 2017, which means fire season has just begun.

These annual wildfires take an extensive toll on California. There is the emotional cost for those who lose homes, businesses, and loved ones. Before the grief subsides, individuals and families have to start putting their lives back together, and this involves significant time and financial costs. Many have to work with insurance companies and government agencies in order to rebuild their homes and businesses.

An article this morning, from the Sacramento Bee, indicated the Carr Fire destroyed “1,236 structures and damaged 225 more.” Additionally, “2,546 structures are threatened.”

I do not pretend to have answers for those dealing with catastrophic losses. What I have is a giant database of experts with whom I can consult and hopefully provide valuable information for those in a difficult position.

Seeing the number of structures destroyed, damaged, and threatened, I reached out to one of our property damage and restoration experts.

Brian Spiegel – Property Damage and Restoration Expert Witness

Brian Spiegel, of Spiegel Property Damage Consulting and Forensics, is a licensed general contractor and expert witness in property damage and restoration. He is a Master Fire & Smoke Restorer and a Certified Fire & Smoke Damage Consultant. Mr. Spiegel and his firm have addressed the aftermath of wildfires in Arizona, California, and Nevada. He has been in the property damage and restoration business for more than 40 years. You can learn more about his practice by visiting his website: spiegelexpertservices.com.

As in past publications, I have provided Mr. Spiegel with a variety of questions. Below, you’ll find the questions and Mr. Spiegel’s answers.

Nick: For those fire-damaged structures, what are the most common types of damage?

Mr. Spiegel: There are many specialized procedures for wildfire damages inside the home and outside the home. Roof damage, damaged / burned structure, electronics, all the personal contents. An engineer may be required for structural repairs. An experienced restoration contractor to evaluate what is salvageable and what is not for both structure and contents. Replacement costs; structure, painting, flooring, cabinets, landscaping, etc.

Nick: Is there a particular restoration process for structures that are damaged from a wildfire?

Mr. Spiegel: Generally speaking, wildfires can cause a variety of damages depending on the homes or commercial buildings that are in close proximity to the wildfire. Structures very close to the wildfire can burn to the ground with everything in them. Other structures will have partial burns and suffer from the smoke ash and toxic chemical residues to both the interior and exterior structure, hardscape, landscaping swimming pool and automobiles.

Other homes, miles away, can suffer from all the airborne contaminates created by the vegetation, trees, brush, etc. As well as the toxic chemicals and smoke contaminates caused by burning homes and automobiles. Smoke particulates will attach to airborne pollution particulates that were in the air previous to the fire. Wildfires produce heavy winds that also put a lot of dirt and dust into the smoke mix. I have been involved in wildfires that produced large airborne burning embers (projectiles) that will hit a roof far from the actual fire and take a house to the ground in about thirty minutes. You often see homes completely burned down and many other homes around the house that were not burned to the ground, however, the surrounding homes are impacted by all the airborne particles and will require diligent specialized restorative cleaning by restoration companies that specialize in this work.

Nick: Does a property owner have to hire a restoration company, or is that done through insurance?

Mr. Spiegel: The property owner has the right to choose whoever they want to perform the work on their home and contents. The property owner should seek an expert company to assess their damages and prepare a cost damage estimate, that expert should detail what the cost will be to return the structure and property to pre-damaged condition. This is not work the insured can do themselves or hire a maid service to do. It requires specialized equipment and expertise.

Nick: For those destroyed structures, what is the post-fire process before a property-owner is able to rebuild?

Mr. Spiegel: Obviously the insured should immediately report a claim to their insurance company. The property owner should photograph all the damage to document their damages and the impact to their neighborhood. The insured should seek a licensed contractor with fire damage experience that can determine what may or may not be salvageable.

The contractor will have to determine what the house and building materials looked like previously. This will include what the interior structure was comprised of, as the goal is to return to the home to its pre-damaged condition or establish that monetary value. The insured can help with those descriptions and if any photos are available. Often property owners try to clean themselves and do all the wrong things, such as not using HEPA filtered equipment. There are many wrong things that property owners attempt to do themselves which will make things worse.

Nick: Do you have any suggestions for those with a wildfire destroyed structure?

Mr. Spiegel: Insured should find and expert in these kind of damages as this is not just simple cleaning work. In looking for a restoration contractor find a licensed contractor with certifications and experience relating to this kind of damage. Specialized restorative cleaning requires an experienced expert and specialized equipment.

Nick: Do you have any suggestions for those impacted a by a wildfire, regarding dealing with their insurance company?

Mr. Spiegel: Again, thoroughly photograph and document all the damage to everything inside and outside the home or building.

Nick: Is there anything else the public should know? Feel free to elaborate…

Mr. Spiegel: Make sure you understand the totality of your damages. Make sure to check the credentials and experience level of people and companies rendering opinions regarding all of your property. If you receive an estimate of cost repairs from your insurance company adjuster it would be prudent for you to investigate the scope and method’s the adjuster prepared.


After answering the questions I provided. Mr. Spiegel went on to elaborate on a few additional concerns. He added a bold text to his additional information and I have provided it in full below:

IT IS IMPORTANT TO UNDERSTAND THE FOLLOWING

Dangerous emissions come from wildfires; wildfires are a conglomeration of a complex mixture of particles, liquids and gases a number of atmospheric pollutants, dirt and dust. Air pollutants in the air prior to the wildfire such as diesel & auto exhaust particles etc. which agglomerate into wildfire smoke particulate adding to the mixture that impacts homes in the path of wildfire smoke.

The smoke is comprised of particles, liquids, gases, polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs are carcinogenic) volatile organic compounds (VOCs)

Wildfire smoke is the worst airborne pollutant, even beyond fossil fuel emissions. Wildfires cause much particulate matter (PM) to enter homes than normal pollution. Wildfire residue can cause more air pollution in two days than an entire year of normal airborne pollution sources.


 

I hope this information is helpful to those dealing with active wildfires and the eventual aftermath. Stay safe!