Published: 24 September 2013

The importance of trust

Trust is essential in most areas of life. And who better to trust to give a lecture on the subject than Baroness Onora O’Neill, a distinguished philosopher and politician, who currently chairs the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

The lecture, entitled Trustworthiness before Trust, took place at the University of Surrey on July 18, and was also the keynote lecture of the Vote ID 2013 Conference, hosted by the department of Computing.

Baroness O’Neill spoke about the concept of trust in general, why trust matters to us and how we aim to place trust in the trustworthy and deny it to the untrustworthy. She pointed out that we need to be able to assess who is trustworthy for which purposes. Baroness O’Neill argued for more well placed trust, and not simply more trust. She said, “Trust is only worth having if it is well placed. What you and I want is not simply more trust: it is better placed trust: trust in trustworthy institutions and office holders.”

She went on to give everyday examples such as placing trust in a teacher to get a child reading reasonably fast but not to drive the school minibus, and whether a garage can be trusted to service your car at a reasonable price. She highlighted the significance of trust in connection with politics and politicians.

“With politicians and parties we seek to make intelligent judgements of trustworthiness in relevant matters – and we do not simply rely on evidence of others’ generic attitudes.”

She raised the problem of how to judge complicated institutions, specialists or experts – for example, electoral systems or political parties. She said, “Citizens and others need to be able to judge the trustworthiness of the process at all stages.”

Professor Steve Schneider of the Department of Computing commented that he invited Baroness O’Neill to give the keynote on trustworthiness and trust because this lies at the heart of public acceptance of the kinds of systems that were the subject of the conference.

He said, “We were delighted that Baroness O’Neill was able to give the keynote lecture for the Vote-ID conference hosted this year at Surrey. As technology in voting systems becomes ever more prevalent, there is a growing need to ensure security and trustworthiness of these systems. Her lecture took a step back from the technical solutions, and gave a deep and lucid insight into the fundamentals of what is required of any system to make it trustworthy.”

Surrey has been involved since 2004 in research on the topic of secure electronic voting, and has taken part in proposals for secure voting designs. Surrey is currently involved in a project applying these designs for use by the Victorian Electoral Commission in the State of Victoria, Australia, in collaboration with the Universities of Luxembourg and Melbourne.

Baroness O’Neill is a cross bench member of the House of Lords who has written extensively on the subject of Trust.

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