[LINK] Computer ballot outfit perverts Senate race, theorist says

Bernard Robertson-Dunn brd@austarmetro.com.au
Sun, 09 Feb 2003 16:38:15 +1100


Computer ballot outfit perverts Senate race, theorist says
By Thomas C Greene in Washington
Posted: 08/02/2003 at 16:39 GMT
The Register
http://www.theregister.co.uk/content/55/29247.html

Imagine the perversion of democracy that could occur if an officer of a
company that makes computerized vote tabulators and touch-screen balloting
gear were to run for the Senate in a state where his machinery is used.
Surely, the potential for a sneaky, electronic form of ballot stuffing
would be considerable.

Let's consider US Senator Charles Hagel (Republican, Nebraska), who once
served as Chairman of McCarthy Group Inc., a company which owns, you
guessed it, Election Systems & Software (ES&S), an outfit that makes
roughly half the voting machines in the United States, including those used
in Nebraska where the company is conveniently headquartered.

Current McCarthy Group Chairman Michael McCarthy is Hagel's campaign
treasurer, or was as recently as December 2002, according to a story from
The Hill. "Hagel currently owns a stake in ES&S, and previously served as
chairman when it was named AIS until March of 1995," the story says.

The report is concerned with Hegel's possible influence in Congress to
mandate just the sort of kit that he and his partners have been selling for
years:

"Hagel's unrecorded stake in the voting systems company poses an apparent
conflict of interest on election reform issues. Three companies, including
ES&S, stand to make a large profits from election reform legislation
enacted last year by Congress. Many precincts around the country are
expected to upgrade to optical scan and touch-screen voting machines as a
result of recently enacted election reform. 'There's the potential for a
real gold rush for federal voting equipment manufacturers,' said Doug
Chapin, director of Electionline.org, a clearinghouse of news on election
reform sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts."

The super scary part
While the Hill article is concerned with Hagel's possible failure to report
his financial interest in a company that stands to gain from his
legislative activities -- which in itself is bad enough -- we shouldn't be
surprised to hear from others who've spotted the Trilateral Commission's
fingerprints all over this bit of monkey business.

Indeed, Hagel did exceptionally well in his Senate race -- far better than
anyone had anticipated, especially his opponent.

Enter one Bev Harris, apparently a mail-order guru and author of
mailing-list marketing howto's. Bev is the co-owner of Talion, a
do-it-yourself public relations company for low-budget go-getters. Bev is
"a CEO with 20 years experience in corporate marketing, publishing and
management," her bio explains.

She is convinced that Hegel stole the Nebraska Senate election through some
manner of digital chicanery, and even has a book coming out to prove it.
The book, "Black Box Voting: Ballot-Tampering in the 21st Century" has its
own promotional Web site, throughout which Bev has sprinkled tantalizing
nuggets of pseudo-evidence.

The site is chock full of juicy quotes from people no one's ever heard of,
along with an interlarding of legitimate news that support her thesis only
if one first accepts the postulates and inuendo she's trading in.

For example, the Hill story about Hegel's reluctance to report his interest
in ES&S supports her implication that he used his influence over the
company to doctor the election results, but it does this only so long as we
already believe that he used his influence over the company to doctor the
election results. Otherwise it's a garden-variety conflict-of-interest
story about a guy who might be in a position to push legislation handy for
his bottom line.

Another of Bev's scoops involves Diebold Election Systems, which seems to
have two very serious problems. The first is -- well, let Bev tell it:

"'Technology transfer for updates!' This is among the benefits in the
Diebold PowerPoint sales presentation given to the State of Georgia. Easy
updating -- too easy, apparently."

OK, so what does that mean? I wasn't able to find this PowerPoint
presentation on Bev's site, but it sounds like Diebold is offering to
transfer technology, like source code, say, to loyal customers. Bev makes
it sound like some kind of absurdly insecure automatic update feature, so
as to link it to her next revelation.

And that revelation is that Diebold had been maintaining an insecure FTP
server which permitted anonymous logins. On this server were important
files for company personnel and perhaps partners to play with.

"The AccuVote files, however, were freely shared and sometimes snagged from
the FTP and e-mailed to election workers and technicians. Files on the FTP
site included hardware and software specifications, election results files,
the vote-counting program itself, and "replacement files" for Diebold's
GEMS vote-counting system and for the Windows software underlying the
system. In fact, anyone with a modem could have hunkered over a computer to
download, upload or slightly change and overwrite the files on Diebold's
FTP site," she says.

That's a major security stuff-up by anyone's reckoning; but there's no
evidence that the files were slated for use in a production system or that
they would have escaped the company's verification efforts if they were to
be so used. But in Bev's fertile imagination and knack for inuendo the two
problems merge subtly into one, and she raises concern that the presumed
auto-update feature and this lousy FTP server are somehow going to converge
to ruin election results.

The implication is that users are going to be FTP-ing in for hacked files
thinking they're getting an update. Only there's no evidence that an
auto-update feature exists. There's only Bev's suggestion that a reference
to "technology transfers" on a slide show that we can't find means that one
does exist.

"If you want to tamper with election results, you either want to change the
program or change the data file. That is why the program files, which
control how the votes are tabulated, and the data files, which contain the
actual vote count, should not be available for swapping back and forth like
recipes on a cookbook site," she warns.

Admittedly, she raises good questions about the wisdom of computerized
ballot counting and vote casting. A lot can go wrong, surely. It's just
that good questions and solid evidence are two entirely different things.
In the end, all we have here is an ambitious PR bunny with a book to plug
telling us that if you first accept her postulates without skepticism, her
evidence becomes rock solid.

It works for her. How does it work for you?

-- 
Suspicion often creates what it suspects.
-- C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

Regards
brd

Bernard Robertson-Dunn
Canberra Australia
brd@austarmetro.com.au