November 6, 2006

Hacking Democracy

Electronic voting machines count about 87% of the votes cast in America today. But are they reliable? Are they safe from tampering? From a current congressional hearing to persistent media reports that suggest misuse of data and even outright fraud, concerns over the integrity of electronic voting are growing by the day. And if the voting process is not secure, neither is America’s democracy. The timely, cautionary documentary HACKING DEMOCRACY exposes gaping holes in the security of America’s electronic voting system.

The HBO documentary is on Google Video here.

Posted by James at November 6, 2006 8:08 AM
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Okay, I'm an hour and twenty minutes late for work today because I watched this.

Watch it. It's shocking.

Question: what happens when you take a Diebold memory card and put -5000 votes in for candidate A, and +5000 votes in for candidate B, and then stick the card into a Diebold vote counter?

Answer: the counter prints a "zero strip" to indicate if the card is ready to count votes. The strip says the total votes are 0, and that both candidate A and candidate B have 0 votes.

Question: what happens if you run 25000 ballots through that counter where exactly half of them are for candidate A, and the other half for candidate B?

Answer: Candidate B wins with 17500 votes, and candiate A loses with 7500. Total of these two values 25000. The software audit log reports no tampering.

Question: what is the inherent risk in this strategy of manipulating votes?

Answer: If fewer than 5000 people vote for candidate A, candidate A will show a negative total on the final vote count (which is clearly impossible).

Volusia County Florida, 2000 Presidential Election, Al Gore: -16,022 votes.

Question: Why on earth would a voting machine memory card even allow one to store a negative number when a negative number clearly can't possibly be a real vote result? Why not use "unsigned integers", a data type which has been around for decades in the software industry?

Answer: ::: chirping crickets :::

Posted by: Chuck S. at November 6, 2006 10:55 AM
Why not use unsigned integers?

Because then negative values would wrap, giving Al Gore nearly 4 billion votes, which is an undesirable outcome :-)

Posted by: Jim at November 6, 2006 11:18 AM

I suspect Jim's answer is correct (in a joking sort of way) but on the other hand, shouldn't there at least be some assertions in there that raise a red flag if certain improbable things happen?

One gets the impression that the people who designed these machines didn't want the people running the polls to know if there was anything funny going on.

A negative number should throw up an alert as soon as it happens!

Posted by: James at November 6, 2006 11:33 AM

I guess the important question here is was this intentional or just incompetence?

Posted by: Jim at November 6, 2006 11:44 AM

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