Die Bold, Die Wussy

An Invitation to Steal an Election

South Florida gallops toward the fall election with barely a mention of the X-factor that could decide how Congress is going to shape up for the next two years: Diebold. The company that brought us electronic voting with no paper records to verify results has already been shown to be hopelessly vulnerable to hackers. And here we go again.

Princeton computer science professor Edward Felten recently showed how anyone with elementary knowledge of the Diebold hardware — including election officials, Diebold employees, or just determined hackers — can scramble voting results in less time than it takes to toast a slice of bread. This gave Tailpipe a cold, fishy feeling, like when waves start climbing the Broward sea wall and surge right into the 'Pipe's home garage. So who's calling the shots here? Do mere voters like you or Tailpipe have any real say in the direction of things?

Diebold, of course, figuratively rolls its eyes (like a bemused Dick Cheney on Meet the Press) when confronted with Felten and his little experiment. This is so 2003, the company condescendingly suggests. The company's vote-tallying software now has "the most advanced security features" in place, so what's the big deal with Felten? A Diebold press release mentions things like "Advanced Encryption Standard 128 bit data encryption," which means little to this battered cylinder, though it sure sounds impressive.

But wait a minute. Weren't there similar assurances two years ago, when Ohio and Florida went pro-Bush in really peculiar ways?

Local officialdom continues to roll toward the election with a maddening lack of concern. This was best summed up by a recent Sun-Sentinel editorial, which scornfully dismissed the Princeton experiment as "a smoke screen."

Leave it to a local citizen like Jim Pournaras, a nurse from Sunrise, to take up the cudgel. Pournaras, who says he's a technophile with a fascination for the mechanics of modern government, rips the Sun-Sentinel a new one in a devastating analysis of the dismissive editorial. (He sent his analysis to the Sun-Sentinel, which declined to publish it, so he sent it along to Tailpipe.)

The newspaper editorial asserts that Felten violated all of the rules of scientific research by not contacting Diebold for a response and not putting up his findings for "peer review." If Felten and Co. had called Diebold, the newspaper says, "he'd have learned that newer Diebold software and security systems prevent hackers from altering results."

In other words, Pournaras notes, the newspaper is suggesting that Felten should just have accepted the company's assurances unquestioningly, the way the Sun-Sentinel apparently has. Those assurances are, of course, déjà vu for Diebold's bald claims in 2003 ("The correctness of the software has been proven... The implication that malicious code could be inserted into the system is baseless..."). Besides, Pournaras adds, another scientist — Finnish researcher Harry Hursti, has already found flaws in the new software (as have researchers contracted by the California secretary of state).

As for peer review ("That's what scholars usually do before publishing a paper," the editorial says with sanctimonious relish), Felten's research was published correctly, Pournaras says. "His paper was published openly and is available to the public, and he was under no obligation to seek peer review," he adds — though, in fact, his work actually was reviewed by a researcher from the Johns Hopkins Information Security Institute.

Sums up Pournaras: "There is little doubt that the Diebold [machines] are not secure. The real question is whether such vote-changing access was specifically designed in. That the Sentinel has joined in this deception is a tragedy."

To which Tailpipe adds: If in November there's a mysterious groundswell of Republican support in heavily Democratic Broward and Palm Beach (as there was in 2004, as noted by a California State Polytechnic Institute study and reported exclusively by Tailpipe on September 1, 2005), let's hope the Sun-Sentinel finally starts asking some probing questions.

The Cross He Bears

Headline in the Miami Herald, September 27: Christ proposal to cut taxes is opposed by some in GOP

Check that spelling of Charlie Crist's last name. Those headstrong Republicans — they just won't ever listen to reason.

He Needs Tough Love

Tailpipe just may have to go into rehab. The battered cylinder can't seem to help himself any more. He's obsessed with Hollywood City Commission doings. Commission meetings combine the bleak drama of As the World Turns with the absurd unpredictability of A Day at the Races. They're a bracing elixir that fill Tailpipe's empty days.

Most recently, the 'Pipe was nailed to his seat as six commissioners talked about campaign donors. It started when, toward the end of the September 20 meeting, Commissioner Peter Bober got the idea of having all the commissioners publish their campaign finance reports on the city's website.

The suggestion went over like flatulence in a bathysphere.

There was a long pause, as the idea sat there like something the cat had dragged in.

"They're public records," Bober said, with frisky enthusiasm. "Anybody can come to City Hall and get them anyway. But they're not on the website and they can easily be on the website." Besides, it would save citizens the expense of having the documents copied, at 50 cents a page, he said.

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