"Hacking the Vote"
November 8, 2000
"If they'd been listening to me all along, all of this election confusion
could have been avoided," said Padley Mastoid.
Padley is the president of trust-us-not-to-badly-screw-up-your-vote.com, a firm promoting Internet voting systems. I found 12 messages from him on my voicemail this morning, as the nation awoke to the bizarre aftermath of election day, with a historically close election still undecided and the U.S. population swinging slowly in the wind.
"Look at this mess," said Padley. "Now they have to recount all those votes in Florida, there are concerns over voting irregularities down there, and we might well end up with a President who didn't even win the popular vote! Talk about not having a mandate. And I could have prevented all of this hassle!"
"How so?" I asked.
"Basically, our plan is to eliminate all those long lines at those obsolete polling places. We want to toss the antiquated paper ballots, punch cards, and mechanical voting machines out the window. We'll let people vote online using the same home and office PCs that they already use for accessing offshore gambling sites and downloading porn."
"Hmmm. Sounds like a tempting goal, but aren't you worried about security, reliability, all that sort of stuff ?" I asked.
"Hey, we didn't just fall off the turnip truck. We're using secure, redundant Web servers, so your vote will be just as safe as your credit card numbers during online purchases," said Padley. "You're happy buying things online, aren't you?"
"Well, no, not really, not with all of the security breaches at sites that were supposed to be secure, and their compromising of personal information. I realize that things can go wrong with old-style voting systems, especially if they're set up badly, but at least with them it's usually possible to do various forms of meaningful recounting when there's a question about an election's validity."
"But that's my whole point!" said Padley. "Look at all the trouble being caused by even being able to do a physical recount. Wouldn't it be better to have a nice, computerized system where all the votes are electronic and stored safely in computers where nobody but programmers, system administrators, and top election officials can screw around with them? You don't think any of those guys would mess things up do you? When it's all in the computer, you don't have any choice but to trust the computer! You can't really recount so there'd be no point to complaining. Problem solved!"
"Hmmm. What about hackers? If these systems are on the Internet, they'd seem just as vulnerable to attack and manipulation as any other so-called secure sites."
"Not to worry!" said Padley. "We ran a contest and invited hackers to crack our demonstration system. Five people tried and the only guy who got in was a 12-year-old kid in West Palm Beach, and he promised cross-his-heart not to tell anyone how after we gave him a DVD player! No problem there."
"But why would most hackers even want to tip their hands by playing with your demo sites? Wouldn't the real pros just wait until a real election and then flood your servers with garbage to block real voters out? Couldn't they plant surprises in unrelated downloads that could hide on people's PCs for months or years before being activated on election day to disrupt or manipulate the voting process? There's really no way to secure the typical operating systems that most people have on their home or office computers from those sorts of attacks," I said.
"Picky, picky, picky!" said Padley. "I say let's just deploy these Internet voting systems now and keep the people happy. If these hypothetical hackers you're talking about are really that good, we probably wouldn't even realize that they'd been screwing around with the election anyway. Ignorance can be bliss. And that would sure be preferable to all the hassles they're having in Florida today!"
"I really don't think that's necessarily true ..."
"And at least we wouldn't have network TV anchors getting punchy from being up all night!" said Padley.
"You do have a point about that," I said.
"I knew that I could convince you, Lauren."
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For information about the author, please see: http://www.vortex.com/lauren
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