Hacking Democracy - HBO Documentary - Review

All politics aside, I am looking at this documentary from the software developer point of view. This documentary is about some of the software used in the current electoral system in the United States. The idea and ideal behind the system is to take in the votes of the public, store them electronically, and bring them to a central tabulating system to count the votes for the various candidates. Seems simple enough. Problem - what if the system were tampered with? With the last two federal elections in the U.S. being so controversial, HBO supported a documentary looking into the computerized electoral system to see if it is possible to influence the result of an election by the equivalent of high tech ballot-box stuffing.

As a web developer I know a little about software programming and what is possible in terms of influencing data results. The big question asked by the documentary makers is as follows:

Is it possible to hack the software in order to modify the results of the vote?

Alarmingly it turns out that not only were they able to modify the results of a test vote using the actual machines used today in the U.S. electoral system, but the software that is supposed to detect any tampering was also tricked. The system they used to trick the system was a simple math sequence which technically started one candidate with a negative vote count and another with a positive vote count. The non-profit organization "Black Box Voting", formed by Bev Harris of Seattle, Washington, contacted computer scientists from Johns Hopkins University and a well known Hacker from Finland to look into the voting software used by the largest voting machine manufacturer in the United States.

The software at which they looked (which was supposedly classified as secret) was found on the company’s public FTP site (oops!). A second security flaw was found on the central tabulating software which allows access, by an individual, to the datatable which contains the tabulated vote data. This access gives the individual unhindered access to modify the data. By modifying the data in the datatables themselves there is no way to determine if the data was tampered with. The company who developed the software has made claims that their system is secure. They make a fallacious analogy at one point that what Black Box Voting has done is the equivalent of...

Stealing a car which has the doors open and the keys in the ignition.

The problem with that thinking is that this system should have some security internally beyond the people watching over the machines themselves. Once you’re in the system, it seems there is nothing stopping anyone from modifying the data.

The other major issue involving the election process in the United States is that there is no transparency to the electronic process. The companies who create this software regard the process as "Trade Secrets". This means that the process is also hidden from the governments who are elected through this process. It is no wonder that the U.S. election system is coming under fire if the people trusted to make the elections fair are hiding the process so that nobody can tell if it is fair or not.

Originally I thought the documentary was going to have a major political slant and go after the administration. What I saw was not political at all. It was just a very disheartening look at how corporate greed flouts its power at the average citizen saying there is nothing you can do to stop us. Let us hope that those with the power will not let this continue to slide.

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