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Hackers rigging voting machines a real possibility

Fred Grimm   Miami Herald   09 November 2004

It's not my conspiracy theory.

But I've been scalded, via e-mail, just for noting that there has been a bothersome outbreak of rigged-voting rumors in the last week. I've been called a sore loser, a ''paranoid conspiracy theoriest'' and a liberal lunkhead. I've been accused of trying to help Democrats steal the election from President Bush. I've been called a Michael Moore flunky.

But, hey, it's not my conspiracy theory.

Since last Tuesday evening, the Internet has been jammed with untoward explanations of a Bush victory that occurred despite exit polls indicating things would go swimmingly for the challenger. I never suggested that I believed that Republic computer hackers had altered the true outcome of the election. I don't. But our nifty new touch-screen voting systems do nothing to discourage such paranoia.

Electronic voting machines have two unsettling flaws. They generate no paper records that can be used to check the actual results against the totals offered by the computer.

Worse, the operating systems that run the machines are the privately-held property of the manufacturers. The computer source codes are not open to public inspection. Yet computer scientists from Stanford, MIT, Rice and Johns Hopkins universities have warned that the secret operating systems are rife with vulnerabilities.

Anyone with a Microsoft Windows operating system on their home computer locked in a constant, losing battle to fend off viruses, worms, Trojan Horses and spyware ought to shudder with fear when they cast votes on machines manufactured by Diebold, Sequoia or ES&S (used in Broward and Miami-Dade counties). Without public inspections of the operating systems, without the paper records, election officials have no evidence to quiet talk that an election was rigged.

That doesn't mean I believe the conspiracy theories.

A number of voters claimed that when they voted on the ES&S system, they pushed a button for Kerry and a vote for Bush popped up in their ballot summary. But this is more likely an indication of a machine malfunction than fraud.

If a talented computer geek really wanted to alter an election outcome, voters would never know. Avi Rubin, who heads the computer security program at Johns Hopkins University, told me that tampering by a skilled hacker would be virtually ``undetectable.''

David Dill, the Stanford computer science professor who founded the Verified Voting Foundation, told National Public Radio last week that he was worried because, ''We don't know what's happening inside the machine.'' Dill said that, without independent checks or a backup system, ``We don't know what the invisible errors are.''

The computer scientists are bothered by widespread reports of breakdowns and errors in the voting systems.

But they are more bothered by what they don't know. Because state and local election officials have allowed the basic voting mechanism to remain a private company secret off limits to the public.

Angry Republicans, at least those firing off e-mails, seem to suspect that I'm conspiring with the computer science departments of several major universities to undermine the election of their candidate. But they ought to consider a vote-chilling reality.

Hackers (at least the few that authorities manage to nab) tend to be youngish, anti-establishment, anti-status quo, anti-corporate, anti-social. They're not likely to join the country club. They're not singing in the choir at an evangelical church. They're not security moms. They're not anxious to join the Marines and rush gung-ho into the battle for Fallujah. They're not likely to spend much time humming along with country music's Brooks & Dunn, who performed at the Republican National Convention.

Dear Republican critics: Which way do you suppose hackers will tip an election, when they decide, just for the heck of it, to have a little fun with the computer programs that now determine American elections?

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