Inauthentic users a flaw in online civic platform

Inauthentic users a flaw in online civic platform
With Encinitas’ use of a new online platform to encourage more public engagement, but some critics argue that the system has a number of flaws, including inauthentic users. Photo by Tony Cagala

ENCINITAS — Just a month after the city launched its online civic engagement platform eTown Hall, the city posted a topic on the online forum asking residents to name their favorite type of public art.

Between July 30 and Aug. 24, the city received feedback from residents Derek Smalls, James Darmody, Arthur Vandelay and Vernon Wormer.

There was one problem. These people don’t exist.

The dubious posts are the type that proponents of the city’s online platform — which it has used to collect all the feedback it will use to develop its draft Housing Element plan — said would be weeded out by the system’s fail safes.

Critics, however, argue that these breaches are yet another example of a system that they believe has a number of flaws.

E-Town Hall is an online forum that allows residents to post comments and opinions on city-generated topics. It is powered by Berkeley-based Peak Democracy, which has developed similar civic engagement platforms for about 80 cities across the country.

Supporters have argued that eTown Hall provides people who can’t make it to public meetings an opportunity to weigh in on topics from their own homes, giving them a voice.

The system’s creators say they have gone to great lengths to create a system that authenticates users to ensure that no one is manipulating the outcome of a survey with multiple posts from a single user. One of the ways is requiring users provide their names and addresses.

In the case of the four posts during the summer, the names given were fictional characters. “Arthur Vandelay” is the name of a character on the sitcom “Seinfeld,” “Derek Smalls” a fictional character in the spoof rockumentary “This is Spinal Tap,” “Vernon Wormer” is the chief antagonist in the 1978 movie “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” and James Darmody is a character in the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire.”

A local message board originally picked up on the phony names, which prompted The Coast News to take a deeper look.

The Coast News filed a public records request seeking the physical addresses used by the users when they registered with the site, as well as the IP addresses of the computers used to register the accounts. The city took several weeks to fulfill the requests after vetting it through its legal team.

Two of the four addresses were the home addresses of current Councilwoman Lisa Shaffer and former Councilman Jerome Stocks, both of whom said they had no idea who was using their addresses and that they were not involved with the posts.

Stocks said he would “take any and all legal remedies” against whoever used his address, but was also critical of the eTown Hall system.

“This just underscores some of the issues I have with the system,” Stocks said. “How do you really know who is posting on the site if you can just make up a name and use someone else’s address?”

The other two addresses were to local residents who said they did not participate in the forum.

The IP addresses traced back to the County of San Diego’s public library system, though it is the universal IP address for the entire system, meaning the people could have made that post from any of the county’s libraries.

County spokesman Mike Workman, however, said it was likely performed at the same library.

The county said further investigation to pinpoint the location or terminal used would require a court order, and that would only be pursued in the case of a criminal investigation, such as the recent online threats made at several local high schools.

“What you have here is someone trying to be a smart alec, which doesn’t rise to the level of criminal activity,” Workman said.

The Coast News approached the city and Peak Democracy with its findings. Officials from both groups said that while the findings were troubling, the amount of posts would not alter the findings to a level that would require remediation.

In other words, the fail safes don’t catch everything.

Mike Cohen, the co-founder of Peak Democracy, likened it to a city council meeting, when a speaker fills out a card to speak.

“You might have a person or two who don’t give their real names, and those names are rarely checked or verified,” Cohen said. “E-Town Hall has checks in place to ensure that the integrity of the results of surveys are not compromised by wholesale manipulation or fraud, but it won’t be able to catch every incident.”

Cohen could not provide details on how the system would catch wholesale manipulation, citing the need to stay a step ahead of computer hackers who could find ways to exploit the system if those fail safes were disclosed.

“They are there and they are being used,” Cohen said. “Encinitas residents can rest assured that the system is working the way that it was intended.”

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