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Thursday, September 25, 2003 - Page updated at 10:02 A.M.

Elections chief tightens vote security

By Keith Ervin
Seattle Times staff reporter

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King County's newly appointed elections chief has taken steps to reduce the possibility of computerized vote-tampering while he studies questions raised about possible security flaws in software the county uses to tally election results.

Dean Logan, who became director of records, elections and licensing services this month, said yesterday he has tightened security by restricting employee access to a key election software program and removing other software from the elections computer.

Logan also said he will ask for a formal response by Diebold Election Systems to claims that the company's vote-counting systems may be vulnerable to tampering.

"We're going to take it extremely seriously because we want to be sure that voters are confident that their votes are counted and counted as they intended them to be counted," Logan said.

"If there are problems with the software, we're going to get to the bottom of that."

Logan said he decided election security was a "legitimate issue" after internal company e-mail was posted on the Internet and discussed in a Salon.com article Monday.

To learn more

More information can be found at the following Web site:

Diebold Inc., www.diebold.com

The memos appeared to support reports by Renton Web journalist and author Bev Harris that election results on Diebold's GEMS software could be altered by someone using its underlying Microsoft Access software without leaving a trace in the GEMS audit log.

"Right now you can open GEMS' .mdb file with MS-Access, and alter its contents. That includes the audit log," wrote Ken Clark, an employee of Diebold Election Systems, in an October 2001 e-mail.

Harris said more than 100 memos indicate software changes have been made to Diebold election devices in various jurisdictions without the legally required review by independent testing authorities.

Diebold has steadfastly maintained that its elections machinery and software are safe. The company's position was bolstered yesterday by Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr., who released an independent review of Diebold's touch-screen machines and said that, if properly used, they "can contribute to one of the safest, most secure election systems available."

Harris' Web site was shut down by her Internet service provider late Tuesday after a Diebold attorney said she was violating the company's copyright by posting a link to a New Zealand site that contained 15,000 pieces of Diebold e-mail.

Harris earlier removed Diebold e-mail from her site, www.blackboxvoting.org, in response to an earlier legal threat by the company. Her publisher's site, www.blackboxvoting.com, which does not contain links to the memos, was operating yesterday. Harris said she plans to put her Web site back on the Internet as soon as possible.

Harris said the e-mail supports her claims that Diebold's high-tech voting systems are subject to abuse. She said she was "stunned" the company acknowledged the authenticity of the potentially damaging documents.

Harris said she posted the memos after they were provided to her by a Diebold insider. She called the company's claim of copyright infringement "a flat-out attempt to shut somebody up. ... I still have a mouth, Diebold. Cease and desist my mouth."

A call to Diebold's public-relations department yesterday was not returned. Company spokesman Mike Jacobsen, who is on leave, was reached at his home last night. He said the memos were stolen from Diebold and the company wants them back.

Jacobsen said Harris also stole company property when she circulated numerous company files she found on an unprotected Web site. The files included source code for the company's touch-screen voting machines, which have recently been bought by election officials in Georgia, Maryland and other states.

Diebold insists its machines meet the security requirements of national and state certification and has dismissed as flawed a critical analysis by software experts from Johns Hopkins and Rice universities. (One of the study's authors later acknowledged he was on an advisory committee to Bellevue election-software company VoteHere and held VoteHere stock options.)

Critics of high-tech voting have questioned the propriety of Diebold Chief Executive Walden O'Dell's role as a prominent fund-raiser in President Bush's re-election campaign. O'Dell, whose company is marketing voting machines to its home state of Ohio, wrote to campaign contributors last month that he is "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year."

In King County, here are the steps ordered by election chief Logan to ensure the integrity of elections, including a recount of two close primary-election races for the Seattle and Bellevue city councils:

• On the computer running Diebold's GEMS software, other software, including Microsoft Access software, will be removed.

• Two employees will have to log onto GEMS together before the software can be used.

• All uses of GEMS will be logged on a record maintained outside the GEMS computer.

Logan said he intends to meet with officials from other counties in the state that use GEMS to discuss their procedures and to discuss Diebold's response to security concerns.

Logan said he has looked into a comment in one Diebold memo that said Access has been used a number of times to make "end runs" around the GEMS database. "King County is famous for it," one employee wrote in 2001.

Logan said he has been told by current and former staff members that "end runs" have been used for such legitimate purposes as installing a database in GEMS and taking information from GEMS to create election reports.

He said Harris was mistaken in one of her claims, that GEMS may be vulnerable to external hacking through the Internet. Election results are posted to the Internet using a computer that does not run GEMS, Logan said.

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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