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Criticizing the criticisms in an ongoing e-voting saga

Representatives from three voting machine companies expressed their criticisms against a California state-sponsored “top-to-bottom review” that found “very real” vulnerabilities in their products.

The study was lead by UC Davis professor Matt Bishop, who discussed the study at a hearing held by Secretary of State Debra Bowen, whose office is currently deciding whether or not to allow the machines’ use during the Feb. 5 presidential primary.

Under a contract with UC Davis and Bowen’s office, Bishop’s study examined machines from Diebold Election Systems, Hart Intercivic, and Sequoia Voting Systems. The conclusions, partially released last week, included findings that the voting systems posed difficulties for voters with disabilities and were vulnerable to intrusion. "It may be that all of [the vulnerabilities] can be protected against. It may be that some cannot,” said Bishop.  According to Secretary Bowen, a fourth company, Election Systems & Software, was also to be included in the review but was omitted because it was late in providing needed information to her office.

According to state law, Bowen has until Friday to set the rules for the upcoming primary election.  "I intend to go through a methodical process to determine what to do next," she said.

Sequoia Systems, in a statement released Monday on their web site, called the study’s findings “implausible,” objecting to the fact that the study was conducted in a closed lab environment over a period of weeks as opposed to a true election environment or in accordance with ISO criteria. “None of the attacks described … are capable of success,” said Sequoia sales executive Steven Bennett to a panel of officials from the Secretary of State’s office.

Diebold and Sequoia further pointed out that the study evaluated outdated versions of the voting machines and their software. “While it cannot be guaranteed that all of the extremely improbable vulnerabilities identified are prevented by subsequent product development and updates, many are specifically addressed,” said Sequoia. However, Sequoia acknowledged that it is working to insure that the “few system vulnerabilities” found could not be used to tamper with election results.

“Voting system reliability is something we're always working at improving … security is never finished,” said Sequoia spokeswoman Michelle Schafer.

Hart Intercivic also objected to the study’s laboratory environment, stressing it was not a considerable substitute for real-world “people, processes, procedures, policies, and technology” and, in the company’s official statement, suggested that a better study might “define a realistic threat that faces all layers of security in an election.”

Even members of the security community have questioned the study’s approach: “While the goals of this effort were laudable, our organization is concerned about its execution,” writes Jim March of watchdog group Black Box Voting, to Secretary Bowen. “Your agency's review only partially examines the risks of inside manipulation with these systems. Procedural remedies can be circumvented by those with some level of inside access. In fact, we would contend that the most high risk scenario of all is that of inside manipulation, and we would also contend that the systems used in California cannot be secured from inside tampering.”

Since their inception, voting machines in the US have received a bad rap amidst a storm of negative press, mishaps, and concern about their ability to be tampered with:

In September 2006, Princeton researchers were able to hack Diebold’s AccuVote-TS machine, going so far as to write a computer virus that spread between other Diebold machines. Later, voting machines from Sequoia were also found to have similar vulnerabilities. “You can’t detect it,” explained Princeton Professor Andrew Appel.

In the same month, a team of untrained 54-year-old women from Black Box Voting, using 4 minutes’ worth of time and $12 in tools, were able to circumvent tamper-proof seals on a Diebold vote scanner, and were able to replace the device’s memory card.

Also in September 2006, a consulting firm working for Ohio’s Cuyahoga County -- which includes Cleveland -- found huge discrepancies between the electronic and paper records kept by Diebold voting machines. Ohio was a key swing state for the tight 2004 presidential election, and its electoral votes help decide the result.

Earlier that year in August, Diebold voting machines botched the Alaska preliminaries in several precincts as they failed to connect to their dial-up servers to upload vote results, slowing the election considerably. Officials had to hand-count votes and manually upload the totals to the central server.

In December 2005, a Diebold whistleblower under the name of “Dieb-throat,” who was once a “staunch supporter of electronic voting’s potential” gave a scathing interview to The Raw Story accusing Diebold of mismanagement and burying known backdoors in their own products, including one that made the Department of Homeland Security’s National Cyber Alert System for the first week of September 2004.

In 2004, Black Box Voting released a video demonstrating that a chimp, given an hour of training, was able to hack a Diebold voting machine. “What you saw was a staged production ... analogous to a magic show,” said Diebold spokesman David Bear, in response.

These findings, as well as others both negative and positive, culminated in a March 2007 warning from the US Government Audit Office as it testified before the Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government: “[E-voting] security and reliability concerns are legitimate and thus merit the combined and focused attention of federal, state, and local authorities responsible for election administration.”

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Leverage something that really works!
By leolamas on 8/1/2007 7:54:07 AM , Rating: 2
Here is my take on it: instead of reinventing the wheel, why not leverage a product that really works? Anyone in the voting machine field knows that Brazil has mastered this field. To validate what I'm saying here, just go to Google and do a quick search for "Brazil voting machines" and you'll understand what I'm saying.

By the way, it seems we're notorious for reinventing the wheel... Another great example has to do with ethanol. Brazil (again!) also has mastered the production of ethanol since the 1970s using sugar-cane. I understand that crops of sugar-cane are not very common in the USA but some parts in the south of USA could be great candidates for such crops, and ethanol from sugar-cane is much cheaper to be produced than from corn.

Anyways, it would be great if some of our decision makers could look a little beyond USA borders and leverage what is best in class for each field and make better use of our money.

RE: Leverage something that really works!
By Master Kenobi on 8/1/2007 8:16:06 AM , Rating: 1
Got to step in here and put some things straight.

By the way, it seems we're notorious for reinventing the wheel... Another great example has to do with ethanol. Brazil (again!) also has mastered the production of ethanol since the 1970s using sugar-cane.

See, there is a few problems with this.

#1- Using sugarcane poses a problem. For starters it can only be harvested by hand, and the U.S. is not about to pay the 3-5 doller per day rates to a person to run around in a field and pickup the sugarcane.

#2- Also, the Brazilian method of harvesting sugar cane is to burn the fields just before hand to get rid of the leaves. Throughout the harvesting season the air quality is terrible and there are overwhelming respiratory problems in area of the field and surrounding areas. This isn't good.

Educate yourself about the problems before posting about golden solutions. You also need to figure that before the mid 1990's the Ethanol industry in Brazil was heavily subsidized, it doesn't need to be anymore as it's a mature industry, but there isnt any pure ethanol these days. It's mostly gasoline with ethanol mixed in.

RE: Leverage something that really works!
By OxBow on 8/1/2007 9:41:40 AM , Rating: 2
Who says it has to be harvested by hand. In Louisiana I've seen several mechanical harvesters. Sugar cane hasn't been harvested by hand for nearly 50 years.

Not saying that Cane>Ethanol makes sense here for a wide variety of other reasons; carbon footprint, climate margins, land values, etc.

As for the Brazilian voting system, their system has solved some of the problems we have, but introduces others. It's a trade off. Our voting system stinks, but it's no worse than other many other systems. We need to get the corruption out of the system, not change how we vote.

The president of Diebold promised to deliver the '04 Ohio vote to Bush back in '02. All of these voting machine companies have deliberately created machines that can skew an election one way or another.

There's more to the reform needs here than just insisting on a plain text paper trail, although that is a first step. As for the argument that you couldn't do this hack in a real election setup, that's a load of claptrap. Most of these machines are delivered from storage and set up by County work crews (usually a job delegated to trustees). Getting in and flashing the eproms on one of these units is the work of minutes, something anyone can do with a couple minutes training. Skewing an election would be very simple from logistical point of view. The manufacturers have just been very obliging in making it simple.

RE: Leverage something that really works!
By Master Kenobi on 8/1/07, Rating: 0
By leolamas on 8/1/2007 10:14:16 AM , Rating: 2
Yes, it's still harvested by hand in Brazil just because labor over there is way cheaper than buying machines to do it (not that I agree with such methods but this is how it's done over there). But just because this is how is done in Brazil it doens't mean it should be done the same way here. What I'm trying to say is that we could leverage the "good" parts of this process done in Brazil and improve the other ones needing improvements. Similar to what the Japeneses did when they started producing their cars (learned from Americans and made it much better later on). Same idea for the e-vote machines. It's all about leveraging things (when they can be leveraged) instead of reinventing the wheel. This is what I think.

By totallycool on 8/2/2007 2:43:04 PM , Rating: 2
India has been using electronic voting machines for sometime now. So i believe lots of places have already implemented the machines,successfully, then why not us.

By Ringold on 8/3/2007 3:26:06 AM , Rating: 2
Which is nice, except a couple things.

Brazil's elections may be straight, but it's politicians arent. Not generally a country America needs to be emulating.

Regarding Ethanol. Yep, ya'll got your ethanol. Wait a second -- where'd all that rainforest go...?

“And I don't know why [Apple is] acting like it’s superior. I don't even get it. What are they trying to say?” -- Bill Gates on the Mac ads
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