Charlie's Diary

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Sat, 20 Sep 2003

Election rigging for pleasure and profit

The EFF is currently trying to raise the alarm over a deeply sinister development at the IEEE. In case you haven't heard of it, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers is an enormous and important professional body which, among other things, spawns committees that set out public standards for electronics, software, and hardware devices to conform to.

Normally, IEEE activities are nothing but praiseworthy, but this month something weird and nasty is happening in those hallowed halls -- something with poisonous implications for democratic government, world-wide.

You've probably heard about electronic voting machines. If you tracked the US presidential election you'll remember the hanging chads in Florida, the undesirable side-effects of using antique mechanical card-punch machines for filling out ballots. In the UK, Tony Blair and his panglossian ministers are getting all starry-eyed about internet voting, in an attempt to get the under-25 voters interested in the whole business. Anything that makes votes easier to count, and makes it easier for people to vote, would appear on the surface to be a good thing. However ...

As Rebecca Mercuri, professor of computer science at Bryn Mawr College (and a specialist in electronic voting systems) points out at length, electronic voting harbours potentially immense dangers. As she writes: "I am adamantly opposed to the use of fully electronic or Internet-based systems for use in anonymous balloting and vote tabulation applications. The reasons for my opposition are manyfold, and are expressed in my writings as well as those of other well-respected computer security experts. At the present time, it is my strong recommendation that all election officials REFRAIN from procuring ANY system that does not provide an indisputable paper ballot. A detailed explanation, along with my recommendation for appropriately configured voting equipment, is provided in the full text of this statement, available here."

In case you're too lazy to read professor Mercuri's opinion, here's her key point: "Fully electronic systems do not provide any way that the voter can truly verify that the ballot cast corresponds to that being recorded, transmitted, or tabulated. Any programmer can write code that displays one thing on a screen, records something else, and prints yet another result. There is no known way to ensure that this is not happening inside of a voting system." In a nutshell: software can be hacked. If you don't have a piece of paper to hold, you're stuffed. It can't be proven to be a democracy any more than a system where the ballot boxes are carted away from the polling station by workers from the governing party, re-packed, and then appear mysteriously at the count in the custody of those same party adherents.

Speaking as a sometime programmer with a master's degree in computer science, I agree with her. She's dead right. Electronic voting systems are dangerously easy to rig. So the only way to safely approach electronic voting is with complete openness. To be acceptable, an electronic voting system must meet at least the following requirements:

  • It must print a paper record of the vote cast, which the voter must be able to see, and which must be retained, and which can be reconciled with the electronic record of the vote.
  • The software used must be open to third-party auditors, to the extent that it can be verified and if necessarily formally proven to be above suspicion. (Translation: only open source need apply.)
  • The hardware used must be open to third-party auditors, preferably conform verifiably to off-the-shelf standards, and may be challenged and replaced by the election commission with equivalent off-the-shelf equipment (to ensure that no sneaky hardware back doors are installed).

Needless to say, current electronic voting systems don't meet these requirements. They're almost all made by private commercial concerns like Sequoia Voting Systems or Danaher Corporation, Diebold Election Systems and ES&S. They're black boxes; in most cases the licence terms expressly forbid opening the hardware for inspection, let alone providing source code to the software. And the companies who make them may harbour conflicts of interest.

Now here's the EFF's beef with the IEEE:

In the aftermath of the Florida election debacle, the IEEE took up the question of standards for voting equipment. It created a working group, called Project P1583, overseen by a Standards Coordinating Committee known as SCC 38. After passage by IEEE, this standard will go to ANSI for final validation. The substantive work is in its final stages, and the draft standard is currently out to ballot.

This particular vote is extremely important, because the IEEE sits on an advisory committee to the forthcoming Election Assistance Commission established by the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). This means that this standard could ultimately be adopted broadly throughout the United States. In a very real sense, the future of democratic systems in the U.S. and around the world are implicated by this standard -- the stakes couldn't be higher.

Problem: Unfortunately, instead of using this opportunity to create a performance standard, setting benchmarks for e-voting machines to meet with regards to testing the security, reliability, accessibility and accuracy of these machines, P1583 created a design standard, describing how electronic voting machines should be configured (and following the basic plans of most current electronic voting machines). Even more problematic, the standard fails to require or even recommend that voting machines be truly voter verified or verifiable, a security measure that has broad support within the computer security community.

To make matters worse, EFF has received reports of serious procedural problems with the P1538 and SCC 38 Committee processes, including shifting roadblocks placed in front of those who wish to participate and vote, and failure to follow basic procedural requirements. We've heard claims that the working group and committee leadership is largely controlled by representatives of the electronic voting machine vendor companies and others with vested interests.

This is an enormously important issue. What the IEEE standard specifies will probably be taken up by the US government under the HAVA proposal and will set a benchmark that will be followed worldwide. The big players in the commercial e-voting systems market want to ensure that the playing field meets their requirements, not the requirements of representative democratic governments, and they're nobbling the committee in order to get a lock on the standard. If we're not lucky we'll be stuck with voting machines that provide no audit trail, give no opportunity to verify that they're impartial and record votes correctly, and are made by corporations whose owners are political partisans who favour one party over any other.

If you're an IEEE member, please go look at the EFF alert and do something, as soon as you can. Help preserve democracy: it may be the most important political act you ever make.

[ Link ] [ Discuss electronic voting ]

posted at: 17:57 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry

And now, the News

A small cabal with a plan for planetary hegemony has seized control of a major superpower, and is implementing a scheme to destroy that nation's civil liberties (using national security as a smoke screen). The government fronted by the cabal tampered with a UN weapons inspection support, is carrying out assassinations and sponsouring coups against democratic governments abroad, and is attempting to destroy unions at home. Their friends and cronies are picking up monopolies and big government contracts as they attempt to destroy the ability of the internet to act as a channel for alternate political voices, and avoiding punishment even when convicted of serious crimes. They're violating international treaties, lying about the benefits of liberating Afghanistan from the Taliban, and seeking to recolonize Africa. Their troops are implicated in massacres abroad and massive environmental damage at home -- and are deployed in an attempt not to secure an oil supply or prevent terrorism, but in order to prevent the rest of the world switching to an alternative trading currency.

Yep, Project Censored's 2004 report on the Top 25 under-reported news stories of 2002-2003 is out, and it makes for grim reading. This summary scratches the surface of their headlines -- but only just. It's a synopsis of the important stuff that didn't make the mainstream media -- events which tell a story that differs from the public narrative, a story that is politically incorrect (from an establishment point of view), a story that reveals unpleasant truths about the society we live in. When you put it side by side with the panglossian vision purveyed by the mainstream, and try to triangulate on what is really going on by looking for motives behind the lies and misstatements of truth in the mass-media headlines, it exposes something we don't like to think about: the gap between our heavily propagandized (but notionally free) media and the reality it claims to represent impartially. Because -- make no mistake -- if these stories were clearly false, they could be refuted easily and in public.

The lack of refutation, and the deafening silence in the mass media, tells its own tale. Remember, any coverage is good coverage. The way censorship works in the West is to deny stories that contradict the received truth the oxygen of publicity, lest people ask why they are being so vehemently contradicted. Our mechanisms of social control are more subtle than those a totalitarian dictatorship because our system requires the illusion of consent if it is to function efficiently.

Seriously, if you're not familiar with Project Censored, you want to read this report. And last year's. And the year before that. Because if you don't, you won't know half of what's really going on.

And now, the weather.

[ Link ] [ Discuss politics ] [ Discuss warming ]

posted at: 15:29 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry


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