Discussion on Technological Influence Opens Inaugural Symposium on Democracy

Created: February 13, 2018  |  Last Updated: September 30, 2021  |  Category:   |  Tagged:

WASHINGTON, PA (Feb. 13, 2018) - Washington & Jefferson College (W&J) kicked off its inaugural Symposium on Democracy Monday, Feb. 12, with a panel discussion led by faculty from the College’s Computing and Information Studies department.

Professors Charles Hannon, Ph.D., and Amanda Holland-Minkley, Ph.D., and Assistant Professor Gregory Hallenbeck, Ph.D., opened the Symposium with a discussion of how technology affects democracy, from electronic voter fraud to accuracy of survey reporting.

Dr. Hannon discussed how location services are used, and the ways in which that use might be supported – or work against – the U.S. Constitution. The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which reads in part, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated…,” could mean that your location history is protected. However, according to a United States legal theory known as the third-party doctrine,  people who voluntarily give information to third parties—such as banks, phone companies, or internet service providers among others—have "no reasonable expectation of privacy." Updated legislation on the matter is needed, he said.

“The Electronic Communications Privacy Act is from 1986, so its very dated,” he said. “There’s been legislation pending for about four years now, so there is room to improve there.”

Information security was the topic of Dr. Holland-Minkley’s presentation, and she talked about the “hackability” of election hardware and how this could cast doubt on the authenticity of U.S. election results. Security is always a balance between confidentiality, integrity, and availability, she said, and the system is never perfect. She discussed how social media posts can influence voters – and elections as a result – and how both real and rumored situations of hacking affect public perception of elections.

“These are systems that are fundamental to our faith in our democracy, and yet we have vendors providing security systems for us that are not terribly secure,” she said.

In Dr. Hallenbeck’s presentation on the technology of surveys, he considered how to achieve accuracy in survey samples and in the answers users provide. Surveys are important in determining who is going to win an election and what people think about political issues, he said, but how you report survey results makes a difference in user behavior.

“Having higher accountability and reporting on surveys, and greater transparency in understanding who is conducting the survey and how data will be used is needed,” he said.

Upcoming Symposium events include: “Can American Democracy Survive Without a Thriving Middle Class?” by Stephen B. Young, global executive director, Caux Round Table for Moral Capitalism on Feb. 13; and “The Foundations of American Democracy: 1776-1865” by Richard Carwardine, FRHistS, FBA, FLSW, Professor of American History and former President of the Corpus Christi College, Oxford on Feb. 14.

All events are free, open to the public, and non-ticketed. Video of the Young and Carwardine lectures will be live-streamed at the time of the event at: washjeff.edu. Videos and additional coverage of all events will be posted to the W&J YouTube Channel and the W&J College website this week.


About Washington & Jefferson College

Washington & Jefferson College, located in Washington, Pa., is a selective liberal arts college founded in 1781. Committed to providing each of its students with the highest-quality undergraduate education available, W&J offers a traditional arts and sciences curriculum emphasizing interdisciplinary study and independent study work. For more information about W&J, visit www.washjeff.edu, or call 888-W-AND-JAY.