Tuesday, November 07, 2006

hacking democracy

The most secret systems should be the most secure. This is what Hollywood has taught us with spy movies and it seems logical. After all, if how a system operates is completely secret, shouldn’t it be harder to figure out how to defeat it? History has taught us the opposite, though, and more than a hundred years ago Kerckhoff formulated a principle on which modern cryptography is based: The security of the encryption scheme must depend only on the secrecy of the key, and not on the secrecy of the algorithm.

Modern reasons continue to make Kerchoff prescient, including the ability to reverse engineer software, the inevitability of the secret becoming compromised and the power of peer review to discover vulnerabilities. Sadly, this lesson is lost on the corporations that manufacture electronic voting machines and the election boards, city councils and state commissions that purchase the hardware. Today’s voting machines are black boxes, and attempts to examine the hardware, review the software and audit the systems can violate both contracts and laws, even when the auditor is a state agency.

Questions surrounding both the 2000 elections and the 2004 results have spurred the organization of groups like open voting and black box voting dedicated to lifting the veil of secrecy. With paper ballots, officials from the major parties could monitor the voting process both at the polling place and during the count. While their may have been fraud on a small scale, this open approach and its significant acountability trail created confidence in the system. As the new HBO special Hacking Democracy documents, with electronic voting there is ample reason for an erosion of that confidence.

Hacking Democracy tracks the efforts of Black Box Voting to learn how Diebold voting machines work. It illustrates untraceable techniques to alter the count at both optical scanning machines and the point of central tabulation. Perhaps more importantly, it shows Diebold executives lying about the existence of these flaws and their efforts to correct them. No matter how you feel about previous elections, the integrity of the voting process and its theoretical potential for compromise is certainly an issue on which Republicans and Democrats can unite.

Hacking Democracy re-airs tonight and the rest of this week on this schedule. It is also available on Google Video, and that is how I watched it late last night. Although its free distribution violates HBO’s copyrights, I applaud HBO legal team’s restraint in permitting this must-watch film to gain a wider audience. The Sopranos, The Wire, Rome and now hard-hitting documentaries – HBO is certainly the premier television network.

Download or watch Hacking Democracy via Google (via slashdot)

Bonus link 1: Bruce Schneier’s Nov 2004 essay on ways to increase electronic voting security
Bonus link 2: Sept 2006 Princeton analysis of a Diebold AccuVote TS machine