Problems with ID cards

From Bruce Schneier’s Crypto-Gram of 15 April 2004:

My argument may not be obvious, but it’s not hard to follow, either. It centers around the notion that security must be evaluated not based on how it works, but on how it fails.

It doesn’t really matter how well an ID card works when used by the hundreds of millions of honest people that would carry it. What matters is how the system might fail when used by someone intent on subverting that system: how it fails naturally, how it can be made to fail, and how failures might be exploited.

The first problem is the card itself. No matter how unforgeable we make it, it will be forged. And even worse, people will get legitimate cards in fraudulent names. …

Not that there would ever be such thing as a single ID card. Currently about 20 percent of all identity documents are lost per year. An entirely separate security system would have to be developed for people who lost their card, a system that itself is capable of abuse. …

But the main problem with any ID system is that it requires the existence of a database. In this case it would have to be an immense database of private and sensitive information on every American—one widely and instantaneously accessible from airline check-in stations, police cars, schools, and so on.

The security risks are enormous. Such a database would be a kludge of existing databases; databases that are incompatible, full of erroneous data, and unreliable. …

What good would it have been to know the names of Timothy McVeigh, the Unabomber, or the DC snipers before they were arrested? Palestinian suicide bombers generally have no history of terrorism. The goal is here is to know someone’s intentions, and their identity has very little to do with that.

Woody Allen’s atheism

From Robert E. Lauder’s interview with Woody Allen, “Whatever Works” (Commonweal: 15 April 2010):

Well, you know, you want some kind of relief from the agony and terror of human existence. Human existence is a brutal experience to me…it’s a brutal, meaningless experience—an agonizing, meaningless experience with some oases, delight, some charm and peace, but these are just small oases. Overall, it is a brutal, brutal, terrible experience, and so it’s what can you do to alleviate the agony of the human condition, the human predicament?

I’m really impotent against the overwhelming bleakness of the universe and that the only thing I can do is my little gift and do it the best I can, and that is about the best I can do, which is cold comfort.

I also feel that humor, just like Fred Astaire dance numbers or these lightweight musicals, gives you a little oasis. You are in this horrible world and for an hour and a half you duck into a dark room and it’s air-conditioned and the sun is not blinding you and you leave the terror of the universe behind and you are completely transported into an escapist situation. The women are beautiful, the men are witty and heroic, nobody has terrible problems and this is a delightful escapist thing, and you leave the theatre refreshed. It’s like drinking a cool lemonade and then after a while you get worn down again and you need it again.

there are these oases, and life is horrible, but it is not relentlessly black from wire to wire. You can sit down and hear a Mozart symphony, or you can watch the Marx Brothers, and this will give you a pleasant escape for a while. And that is about the best that you can do… I feel that one can come up with all these rationalizations and seemingly astute observations, but I think I said it well at the end of Deconstructing Harry: we all know the same truth; our lives consist of how we choose to distort it, and that’s it. Everybody knows how awful the world is and what a terrible situation it is and each person distorts it in a certain way that enables him to get through. Some people distort it with religious things. Some people distort it with sports, with money, with love, with art, and they all have their own nonsense about what makes it meaningful, and all but nothing makes it meaningful. These things definitely serve a certain function, but in the end they all fail to give life meaning and everyone goes to his grave in a meaningless way.

I feel that is true—that one can commit a crime, do unspeakable things, and get away with it. There are people who commit all sorts of crimes and get away with it, and some of them are plagued with all sorts of guilt for the rest of their lives and others aren’t. They commit terrible crimes and they have wonderful lives, wonderful, happy lives, with families and children, and they have done unspeakably terrible things. There is no justice, there is no rational structure to it. That is just the way it is, and each person figures out some way to cope…. Some people cope better than others. I was with Billy Graham once, and he said that even if it turned out in the end that there is no God and the universe is empty, he would still have had a better life than me. I understand that. If you can delude yourself by believing that there is some kind of Santa Claus out there who is going to bail you out in the end, then it will help you get through. Even if you are proven wrong in the end, you would have had a better life.

I didn’t see [Shane, from the movie Shane] as a martyred figure, a persecuted figure. I saw him as quite a heroic figure who does a job that needs to be done, a practical matter. I saw him as a practical secular character. In this world there are just some people who need killing and that is just the way it is. It sounds terrible, but there is no other way to get around that, and most of us are not up to doing it, incapable for moral reasons or physically not up to it. And Shane is a person who saw what had to be done and went out and did it. He had the skill to do it, and that’s the way I feel about the world: there are certain problems that can only be dealt with that way. As ugly a truth as that is, I do think it’s the truth about the world.

Warnings about invalid security certs are ignored by users

Yahoo Publisher Network Security Cert
Image by rustybrick via Flickr

From Robert McMillan’s “Security certificate warnings don’t work, researchers say” (IDG News Service: 27 July 2009):

In a laboratory experiment, researchers found that between 55 percent and 100 percent of participants ignored certificate security warnings, depending on which browser they were using (different browsers use different language to warn their users).

The researchers first conducted an online survey of more than 400 Web surfers, to learn what they thought about certificate warnings. They then brought 100 people into a lab and studied how they surf the Web.

They found that people often had a mixed-up understanding of certificate warnings. For example, many thought they could ignore the messages when visiting a site they trust, but that they should be more wary at less-trustworthy sites.

In the Firefox 3 browser, Mozilla tried to use simpler language and better warnings for bad certificates. And the browser makes it harder to ignore a bad certificate warning. In the Carnegie Mellon lab, Firefox 3 users were the least likely to click through after being shown a warning.

The researchers experimented with several redesigned security warnings they’d written themselves, which appeared to be even more effective.…

Still, Sunshine believes that better warnings will help only so much. Instead of warnings, browsers should use systems that can analyze the error messages. “If those systems decide this is likely to be an attack, they should just block the user altogether,” he said.

RFID security problems

Old British passport cover
Creative Commons License photo credit: sleepymyf


From Brian Krebs’ “Leaving Las Vegas: So Long DefCon and Blackhat” (The Washington Post: 1 August 2005):

DefCon 13 also was notable for being the location where two new world records were set — both involved shooting certain electronic signals unprecedented distances. Los Angeles-based Flexilis set the world record for transmitting data to and from a “passive” radio frequency identification (RFID) card — covering a distance of more than 69 feet. (Active RFID — the kind being integrated into foreign passports, for example — differs from passive RFID in that it emits its own magnetic signal and can only be detected from a much shorter distance.)

The second record set this year at DefCon was pulled off by some teens from Cincinnati, who broke the world record they set last year by building a device capable of maintaining an unamplified, 11-megabit 802.11b wireless Internet connection over a distance of 125 miles (the network actually spanned from Utah into Nevada).

From Andrew Brandt’s “Black Hat, Lynn Settle with Cisco, ISS” (PC World: 29 July 2005):

Security researcher Kevin Mahaffey makes a final adjustment to a series of radio antennas; Mahaffey used the directional antennas in a demonstration during his presentation, “Long Range RFID and its Security Implications.” Mahaffey and two of his colleagues demonstrated how he could increase the “read range” of radio frequency identification (RF) tags from the typical four to six inches to approximately 50 feet. Mahaffey said the tags could be read at a longer distance, but he wanted to perform the demonstration in the room where he gave the presentation, and that was the greatest distance within the room that he could demonstrate. RFID tags such as the one Mahaffey tested will begin to appear in U.S. passports later this year or next year.


From Joris Evers and Declan McCullagh’s “Researchers: E-passports pose security risk” (CNET: 5 August 2006):

At a pair of security conferences here, researchers demonstrated that passports equipped with radio frequency identification (RFID) tags can be cloned with a laptop equipped with a $200 RFID reader and a similarly inexpensive smart card writer. In addition, they suggested that RFID tags embedded in travel documents could identify U.S. passports from a distance, possibly letting terrorists use them as a trigger for explosives.

At the Black Hat conference, Lukas Grunwald, a researcher with DN-Systems in Hildesheim, Germany, demonstrated that he could copy data stored in an RFID tag from his passport and write the data to a smart card equipped with an RFID chip.

From Kim Zetter’s “Hackers Clone E-Passports” (Wired: 3 August 2006):

In a demonstration for Wired News, Grunwald placed his passport on top of an official passport-inspection RFID reader used for border control. He obtained the reader by ordering it from the maker — Walluf, Germany-based ACG Identification Technologies — but says someone could easily make their own for about $200 just by adding an antenna to a standard RFID reader.

He then launched a program that border patrol stations use to read the passports — called Golden Reader Tool and made by secunet Security Networks — and within four seconds, the data from the passport chip appeared on screen in the Golden Reader template.

Grunwald then prepared a sample blank passport page embedded with an RFID tag by placing it on the reader — which can also act as a writer — and burning in the ICAO layout, so that the basic structure of the chip matched that of an official passport.

As the final step, he used a program that he and a partner designed two years ago, called RFDump, to program the new chip with the copied information.

The result was a blank document that looks, to electronic passport readers, like the original passport.

Although he can clone the tag, Grunwald says it’s not possible, as far as he can tell, to change data on the chip, such as the name or birth date, without being detected. That’s because the passport uses cryptographic hashes to authenticate the data.

Grunwald’s technique requires a counterfeiter to have physical possession of the original passport for a time. A forger could not surreptitiously clone a passport in a traveler’s pocket or purse because of a built-in privacy feature called Basic Access Control that requires officials to unlock a passport’s RFID chip before reading it. The chip can only be unlocked with a unique key derived from the machine-readable data printed on the passport’s page.

To produce a clone, Grunwald has to program his copycat chip to answer to the key printed on the new passport. Alternatively, he can program the clone to dispense with Basic Access Control, which is an optional feature in the specification.

As planned, U.S. e-passports will contain a web of metal fiber embedded in the front cover of the documents to shield them from unauthorized readers. Though Basic Access Control would keep the chip from yielding useful information to attackers, it would still announce its presence to anyone with the right equipment. The government added the shielding after privacy activists expressed worries that a terrorist could simply point a reader at a crowd and identify foreign travelers.

In theory, with metal fibers in the front cover, nobody can sniff out the presence of an e-passport that’s closed. But [Kevin Mahaffey and John Hering of Flexilis] demonstrated in their video how even if a passport opens only half an inch — such as it might if placed in a purse or backpack — it can reveal itself to a reader at least two feet away.

In addition to cloning passport chips, Grunwald has been able to clone RFID ticket cards used by students at universities to buy cafeteria meals and add money to the balance on the cards.

He and his partners were also able to crash RFID-enabled alarm systems designed to sound when an intruder breaks a window or door to gain entry. Such systems require workers to pass an RFID card over a reader to turn the system on and off. Grunwald found that by manipulating data on the RFID chip he could crash the system, opening the way for a thief to break into the building through a window or door.

And they were able to clone and manipulate RFID tags used in hotel room key cards and corporate access cards and create a master key card to open every room in a hotel, office or other facility. He was able, for example, to clone Mifare, the most commonly used key-access system, designed by Philips Electronics. To create a master key he simply needed two or three key cards for different rooms to determine the structure of the cards. Of the 10 different types of RFID systems he examined that were being used in hotels, none used encryption.

Many of the card systems that did use encryption failed to change the default key that manufacturers program into the access card system before shipping, or they used sample keys that the manufacturer includes in instructions sent with the cards. Grunwald and his partners created a dictionary database of all the sample keys they found in such literature (much of which they found accidentally published on purchasers’ websites) to conduct what’s known as a dictionary attack. When attacking a new access card system, their RFDump program would search the list until it found the key that unlocked a card’s encryption.

“I was really surprised we were able to open about 75 percent of all the cards we collected,” he says.


From Thomas Ricker’s “Video: Hacker war drives San Francisco cloning RFID passports” (Engadget: 2 February 2009):

Using a $250 Motorola RFID reader and antenna connected to his laptop, Chris recently drove around San Francisco reading RFID tags from passports, driver licenses, and other identity documents. In just 20 minutes, he found and cloned the passports of two very unaware US citizens.

How to deal with the fact that users can’t learn much about security

From Bruce Schneier’s “Second SHB Workshop Liveblogging (4)” (Schneier on Security: 11 June 2009):

Diana Smetters, Palo Alto Research Center …, started with these premises: you can teach users, but you can’t teach them very much, so you’d better carefully design systems so that you 1) minimize what they have to learn, 2) make it easier for them to learn it, and 3) maximize the benefit from what they learn. Too often, security is at odds with getting the job done. “As long as configuration errors (false alarms) are common, any technology that requires users to observe security indicators and react to them will fail as attacks can simply masquerade as errors, and users will rationally ignore them.” She recommends meeting the user halfway by building new security models that actually fit the users’ needs.

A better alternative to text CAPTCHAs

From Rich Gossweiler, Maryam Kamvar, & Shumeet Baluja’s “What’s Up CAPTCHA?: A CAPTCHA Based On Image Orientation” (Google: 20-24 April 2009):

There are several classes of images which can be successfully oriented by computers. Some objects, such as faces, cars, pedestrians, sky, grass etc.

Many images, however, are difficult for computers to orient. For example, indoor scenes have variations in lighting sources, and abstract and close-up images provide the greatest challenge to both computers and people, often because no clear anchor points or lighting sources exist.

The average performance on outdoor photographs, architecture photographs and typical tourist type photographs was significantly higher than the performance on abstract photographs, close-ups and backgrounds. When an analysis of the features used to make the discriminations was done, it was found that the edge features play a significant role.

It is important not to simply select random images for this task. There are many cues which can quickly reveal the upright orientation of an image to automated systems; these images must be filtered out. For example, if typical vacation or snapshot photos are used, automated rotation accuracies can be in the 90% range. The existence of any of the cues in the presented images will severely limit the effectiveness of the approach. Three common cues are listed below:

1. Text: Usually the predominant orientation of text in an image reveals the upright orientation of an image.

2. Faces and People: Most photographs are taken with the face(s) / people upright in the image.

3. Blue skies, green grass, and beige sand: These are all revealing clues, and are present in many travel/tourist photographs found on the web. Extending this beyond color, in general, the sky often has few texture/edges in comparison to the ground. Additional cues found important in human tests include "grass", "trees", "cars", "water" and "clouds".

Second, due to sometimes warped objects, lack of shading and lighting cues, and often unrealistic colors, cartoons also make ideal candidates. … Finally, although we did not alter the content of the image, it may be possible to simply alter the color- mapping, overall lighting curves, and hue/saturation levels to reveal images that appear unnatural but remain recognizable to people.

To normalize the shape and size of the images, we scaled each image to a 180×180 pixel square and we then applied a circular mask to remove the image corners.

We have created a system that has sufficiently high human- success rates and sufficiently low computer-success rates. When using three images, the rotational CAPTCHA system results in an 84% human success metric, and a .009% bot-success metric (assuming random guessing). These metrics are based on two variables: the number of images we require a user to rotate and the size of the acceptable error window (the degrees from upright which we still consider to be upright). Predictably, as the number of images shown becomes greater, the probability of correctly solving them decreases. However, as the error window increases, the probability of correctly solving them increases. The system which results in an 84% human success rate and .009% bot success rate asks the user to rotate three images, each within 16° of upright (8-degrees on either side of upright).

A CAPTCHA system which displayed ≥ 3 images with a ≤ 16-degree error window would achieve a guess success rate of less than 1 in 10,000, a standard acceptable computer success rates for CAPTCHAs.

In our experiments, users moved a slider to rotate the image to its upright position. On small display devices such as a mobile phone, they could directly manipulate the image using a touch screen, as seen in Figure 12, or can rotate it via button presses.

How the fundamentalist thinks

From ScienceDaily’s “Brain Differences Found Between Believers In God And Non-believers” (5 March 2009):

In two studies led by Assistant Psychology Professor Michael Inzlicht, participants performed a Stroop task – a well-known test of cognitive control – while hooked up to electrodes that measured their brain activity.

Compared to non-believers, the religious participants showed significantly less activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a portion of the brain that helps modify behavior by signaling when attention and control are needed, usually as a result of some anxiety-producing event like making a mistake. The stronger their religious zeal and the more they believed in God, the less their ACC fired in response to their own errors, and the fewer errors they made.

“You could think of this part of the brain like a cortical alarm bell that rings when an individual has just made a mistake or experiences uncertainty,” says lead author Inzlicht, who teaches and conducts research at the University of Toronto Scarborough. “We found that religious people or even people who simply believe in the existence of God show significantly less brain activity in relation to their own errors. They’re much less anxious and feel less stressed when they have made an error.”

“Obviously, anxiety can be negative because if you have too much, you’re paralyzed with fear,” [Inzlicht] says. “However, it also serves a very useful function in that it alerts us when we’re making mistakes. If you don’t experience anxiety when you make an error, what impetus do you have to change or improve your behaviour so you don’t make the same mistakes again and again?”

Crazy anti-terrorism plans that worked

From a Special Operations officer quoted in Tom Ricks’s Inbox (The Washington Post: 5 October 2008):

One of the most interesting operations was the laundry mat [sic]. Having lost many troops and civilians to bombings, the Brits decided they needed to determine who was making the bombs and where they were being manufactured. One bright fellow recommended they operate a laundry and when asked “what the hell he was talking about,” he explained the plan and it was incorporated — to much success.

The plan was simple: Build a laundry and staff it with locals and a few of their own. The laundry would then send out “color coded” special discount tickets, to the effect of “get two loads for the price of one,” etc. The color coding was matched to specific streets and thus when someone brought in their laundry, it was easy to determine the general location from which a city map was coded.

While the laundry was indeed being washed, pressed and dry cleaned, it had one additional cycle — every garment, sheet, glove, pair of pants, was first sent through an analyzer, located in the basement, that checked for bomb-making residue. The analyzer was disguised as just another piece of the laundry equipment; good OPSEC [operational security]. Within a few weeks, multiple positives had shown up, indicating the ingredients of bomb residue, and intelligence had determined which areas of the city were involved. To narrow their target list, [the laundry] simply sent out more specific coupons [numbered] to all houses in the area, and before long they had good addresses. After confirming addresses, authorities with the SAS teams swooped down on the multiple homes and arrested multiple personnel and confiscated numerous assembled bombs, weapons and ingredients. During the entire operation, no one was injured or killed.

By the way, the gentleman also told the story of how [the British] also bugged every new car going into Northern Ireland, and thus knew everything [Sinn Fein leader] Gerry Adams was discussing. They did this because Adams always conducted mobile meetings and always used new cars.

The Israelis have a term for this type of thinking, “Embracing the Meshugganah,” which literally translated means, embrace the craziness, because the crazier the plan, the less likely the adversary will have thought about it, and thus, not have implemented a counter-measure.

CCTV in your plane’s cabin?

From Michael Reilly’s “In-flight surveillance could foil terrorists in the sky” (New Scientist: 29 May 2008):

CCTV cameras are bringing more and more public places under surveillance – and passenger aircraft could be next.

A prototype European system uses multiple cameras and “Big Brother” software to try and automatically detect terrorists or other dangers caused by passengers.

The European Union’s Security of Aircraft in the Future European Environment (SAFEE) project uses a camera in every passenger’s seat, with six wide-angle cameras to survey the aisles. Software then analyses the footage to detect developing terrorist activity or “air-rage” incidents, by tracking passengers’ facial expressions.

“It looks for running in the cabin, standing near the cockpit for long periods of time, and other predetermined indicators that suggest a developing threat,” says James Ferryman of the University of Reading, UK, one of the system’s developers.

Other behaviours could include a person nervously touching their face, or sweating excessively. One such behaviour won’t trigger the system to alert the crew, only certain combinations of them.

US government makes unsafe RFID-laden passports even less safe through business practices

From Bill Gertz’s “Outsourced passports netting govt. profits, risking national security” (The Washington Times: 26 March 2008):

The United States has outsourced the manufacturing of its electronic passports to overseas companies — including one in Thailand that was victimized by Chinese espionage — raising concerns that cost savings are being put ahead of national security, an investigation by The Washington Times has found.

The Government Printing Office’s decision to export the work has proved lucrative, allowing the agency to book more than $100 million in recent profits by charging the State Department more money for blank passports than it actually costs to make them, according to interviews with federal officials and documents obtained by The Times.

The profits have raised questions both inside the agency and in Congress because the law that created GPO as the federal government’s official printer explicitly requires the agency to break even by charging only enough to recover its costs.

Lawmakers said they were alarmed by The Times’ findings and plan to investigate why U.S. companies weren’t used to produce the state-of-the-art passports, one of the crown jewels of American border security.

Officials at GPO, the Homeland Security Department and the State Department played down such concerns, saying they are confident that regular audits and other protections already in place will keep terrorists and foreign spies from stealing or copying the sensitive components to make fake passports.

“Aside from the fact that we have fully vetted and qualified vendors, we also note that the materials are moved via a secure transportation means, including armored vehicles,” GPO spokesman Gary Somerset said.

But GPO Inspector General J. Anthony Ogden, the agency’s internal watchdog, doesn’t share that confidence. He warned in an internal Oct. 12 report that there are “significant deficiencies with the manufacturing of blank passports, security of components, and the internal controls for the process.”

The inspector general’s report said GPO claimed it could not improve its security because of “monetary constraints.” But the inspector general recently told congressional investigators he was unaware that the agency had booked tens of millions of dollars in profits through passport sales that could have been used to improve security, congressional aides told The Times.

GPO is an agency little-known to most Americans, created by Congress almost two centuries ago as a virtual monopoly to print nearly all of the government’s documents … Since 1926, it also has been charged with the job of printing the passports used by Americans to enter and leave the country.

Each new e-passport contains a small computer chip inside the back cover that contains the passport number along with the photo and other personal data of the holder. The data is secured and is transmitted through a tiny wire antenna when it is scanned electronically at border entry points and compared to the actual traveler carrying it.

According to interviews and documents, GPO managers rejected limiting the contracts to U.S.-made computer chip makers and instead sought suppliers from several countries, including Israel, Germany and the Netherlands.

After the computer chips are inserted into the back cover of the passports in Europe, the blank covers are shipped to a factory in Ayutthaya, Thailand, north of Bangkok, to be fitted with a wire Radio Frequency Identification, or RFID, antenna. The blank passports eventually are transported to Washington for final binding, according to the documents and interviews.

The stop in Thailand raises its own security concerns. The Southeast Asian country has battled social instability and terror threats. Anti-government groups backed by Islamists, including al Qaeda, have carried out attacks in southern Thailand and the Thai military took over in a coup in September 2006.

The Netherlands-based company that assembles the U.S. e-passport covers in Thailand, Smartrac Technology Ltd., warned in its latest annual report that, in a worst-case scenario, social unrest in Thailand could lead to a halt in production.

Smartrac divulged in an October 2007 court filing in The Hague that China had stolen its patented technology for e-passport chips, raising additional questions about the security of America’s e-passports.

Transport concerns

A 2005 document obtained by The Times states that GPO was using unsecure FedEx courier services to send blank passports to State Department offices until security concerns were raised and forced GPO to use an armored car company. Even then, the agency proposed using a foreign armored car vendor before State Department diplomatic security officials objected.

Questionable profits

The State Department is now charging Americans $100 or more for new e-passports produced by the GPO, depending on how quickly they are needed. That’s up from a cost of around just $60 in 1998.

Internal agency documents obtained by The Times show each blank passport costs GPO an average of just $7.97 to manufacture and that GPO then charges the State Department about $14.80 for each, a margin of more than 85 percent, the documents show.

The accounting allowed GPO to make gross profits of more than $90 million from Oct. 1, 2006, through Sept. 30, 2007, on the production of e-passports. The four subsequent months produced an additional $54 million in gross profits.

The agency set aside more than $40 million of those profits to help build a secure backup passport production facility in the South, still leaving a net profit of about $100 million in the last 16 months.

GPO plans to produce 28 million blank passports this year up from about 9 million five years ago.

Bush, rhetoric, & the exercise of power

From Mark Danner’s “Words in a Time of War: Taking the Measure of the First Rhetoric-Major President” (Tomgram: 10 May 2007):

[Note: This commencement address was given to graduates of the Department of Rhetoric at Zellerbach Hall, University of California, Berkeley, on May 10, 2007]

I give you my favorite quotation from the Bush administration, put forward by the proverbial “unnamed Administration official” and published in the New York Times Magazine by the fine journalist Ron Suskind in October 2004. Here, in Suskind’s recounting, is what that “unnamed Administration official” told him:

“The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…. and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'”

It was the assumption of this so-called preponderance that lay behind the philosophy of power enunciated by Bush’s Brain [Karl Rove] and that led to an attitude toward international law and alliances that is, in my view, quite unprecedented in American history. That radical attitude is brilliantly encapsulated in a single sentence drawn from the National Security Strategy of the United States of 2003: “Our strength as a nation-state will continue to be challenged by those who employ a strategy of the weak using international fora, judicial processes and terrorism.” Let me repeat that little troika of “weapons of the weak”: international fora (meaning the United Nations and like institutions), judicial processes (meaning courts, domestic and international), and…. terrorism. This strange gathering, put forward by the government of the United States, stems from the idea that power is, in fact, everything. In such a world, courts — indeed, law itself — can only limit the power of the most powerful state. Wielding preponderant power, what need has it for law? The latter must be, by definition, a weapon of the weak. The most powerful state, after all, makes reality.

The future of security

From Bruce Schneier’s “Security in Ten Years” (Crypto-Gram: 15 December 2007):

Bruce Schneier: … The nature of the attacks will be different: the targets, tactics and results. Security is both a trade-off and an arms race, a balance between attacker and defender, and changes in technology upset that balance. Technology might make one particular tactic more effective, or one particular security technology cheaper and more ubiquitous. Or a new emergent application might become a favored target.

By 2017, people and organizations won’t be buying computers and connectivity the way they are today. The world will be dominated by telcos, large ISPs and systems integration companies, and computing will look a lot like a utility. Companies will be selling services, not products: email services, application services, entertainment services. We’re starting to see this trend today, and it’s going to take off in the next 10 years. Where this affects security is that by 2017, people and organizations won’t have a lot of control over their security. Everything will be handled at the ISPs and in the backbone. The free-wheeling days of general-use PCs will be largely over. Think of the iPhone model: You get what Apple decides to give you, and if you try to hack your phone, they can disable it remotely. We techie geeks won’t like it, but it’s the future. The Internet is all about commerce, and commerce won’t survive any other way.

Marcus Ranum: … Another trend I see getting worse is government IT know-how. At the rate outsourcing has been brain-draining the federal workforce, by 2017 there won’t be a single government employee who knows how to do anything with a computer except run PowerPoint and Web surf. Joking aside, the result is that the government’s critical infrastructure will be almost entirely managed from the outside. The strategic implications of such a shift have scared me for a long time; it amounts to a loss of control over data, resources and communications.

Bruce Schneier: … I’m reminded of the post-9/11 anti-terrorist hysteria — we’ve confused security with control, and instead of building systems for real security, we’re building systems of control. Think of ID checks everywhere, the no-fly list, warrantless eavesdropping, broad surveillance, data mining, and all the systems to check up on scuba divers, private pilots, peace activists and other groups of people. These give us negligible security, but put a whole lot of control in the government’s hands.

That’s the problem with any system that relies on control: Once you figure out how to hack the control system, you’re pretty much golden. So instead of a zillion pesky worms, by 2017 we’re going to see fewer but worse super worms that sail past our defenses.

Problems with airport security

From Jeffrey Goldberg’s “The Things He Carried” (The Atlantic: November 2008):

Because the TSA’s security regimen seems to be mainly thing-based—most of its 44,500 airport officers are assigned to truffle through carry-on bags for things like guns, bombs, three-ounce tubes of anthrax, Crest toothpaste, nail clippers, Snapple, and so on—I focused my efforts on bringing bad things through security in many different airports, primarily my home airport, Washington’s Reagan National, the one situated approximately 17 feet from the Pentagon, but also in Los Angeles, New York, Miami, Chicago, and at the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport (which is where I came closest to arousing at least a modest level of suspicion, receiving a symbolic pat-down—all frisks that avoid the sensitive regions are by definition symbolic—and one question about the presence of a Leatherman Multi-Tool in my pocket; said Leatherman was confiscated and is now, I hope, living with the loving family of a TSA employee). And because I have a fair amount of experience reporting on terrorists, and because terrorist groups produce large quantities of branded knickknacks, I’ve amassed an inspiring collection of al-Qaeda T-shirts, Islamic Jihad flags, Hezbollah videotapes, and inflatable Yasir Arafat dolls (really). All these things I’ve carried with me through airports across the country. I’ve also carried, at various times: pocketknives, matches from hotels in Beirut and Peshawar, dust masks, lengths of rope, cigarette lighters, nail clippers, eight-ounce tubes of toothpaste (in my front pocket), bottles of Fiji Water (which is foreign), and, of course, box cutters. I was selected for secondary screening four times—out of dozens of passages through security checkpoints—during this extended experiment. At one screening, I was relieved of a pair of nail clippers; during another, a can of shaving cream.

During one secondary inspection, at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, I was wearing under my shirt a spectacular, only-in-America device called a “Beerbelly,” a neoprene sling that holds a polyurethane bladder and drinking tube. The Beerbelly, designed originally to sneak alcohol—up to 80 ounces—into football games, can quite obviously be used to sneak up to 80 ounces of liquid through airport security. (The company that manufactures the Beerbelly also makes something called a “Winerack,” a bra that holds up to 25 ounces of booze and is recommended, according to the company’s Web site, for PTA meetings.) My Beerbelly, which fit comfortably over my beer belly, contained two cans’ worth of Bud Light at the time of the inspection. It went undetected. The eight-ounce bottle of water in my carry-on bag, however, was seized by the federal government.

Schnei­er and I walked to the security checkpoint. “Counter­terrorism in the airport is a show designed to make people feel better,” he said. “Only two things have made flying safer: the reinforcement of cockpit doors, and the fact that passengers know now to resist hijackers.” This assumes, of course, that al-Qaeda will target airplanes for hijacking, or target aviation at all. “We defend against what the terrorists did last week,” Schnei­er said. He believes that the country would be just as safe as it is today if airport security were rolled back to pre-9/11 levels. “Spend the rest of your money on intelligence, investigations, and emergency response.”

We took our shoes off and placed our laptops in bins. Schnei­er took from his bag a 12-ounce container labeled “saline solution.”

“It’s allowed,” he said. Medical supplies, such as saline solution for contact-lens cleaning, don’t fall under the TSA’s three-ounce rule.

“What’s allowed?” I asked. “Saline solution, or bottles labeled saline solution?”

“Bottles labeled saline solution. They won’t check what’s in it, trust me.”

They did not check. As we gathered our belongings, Schnei­er held up the bottle and said to the nearest security officer, “This is okay, right?” “Yep,” the officer said. “Just have to put it in the tray.”

“Maybe if you lit it on fire, he’d pay attention,” I said, risking arrest for making a joke at airport security. (Later, Schnei­er would carry two bottles labeled saline solution—24 ounces in total—through security. An officer asked him why he needed two bottles. “Two eyes,” he said. He was allowed to keep the bottles.)

We were in the clear. But what did we prove?

“We proved that the ID triangle is hopeless,” Schneier said.

The ID triangle: before a passenger boards a commercial flight, he interacts with his airline or the government three times—when he purchases his ticket; when he passes through airport security; and finally at the gate, when he presents his boarding pass to an airline agent. It is at the first point of contact, when the ticket is purchased, that a passenger’s name is checked against the government’s no-fly list. It is not checked again, and for this reason, Schnei­er argued, the process is merely another form of security theater.

“The goal is to make sure that this ID triangle represents one person,” he explained. “Here’s how you get around it. Let’s assume you’re a terrorist and you believe your name is on the watch list.” It’s easy for a terrorist to check whether the government has cottoned on to his existence, Schnei­er said; he simply has to submit his name online to the new, privately run CLEAR program, which is meant to fast-pass approved travelers through security. If the terrorist is rejected, then he knows he’s on the watch list.

To slip through the only check against the no-fly list, the terrorist uses a stolen credit card to buy a ticket under a fake name. “Then you print a fake boarding pass with your real name on it and go to the airport. You give your real ID, and the fake boarding pass with your real name on it, to security. They’re checking the documents against each other. They’re not checking your name against the no-fly list—that was done on the airline’s computers. Once you’re through security, you rip up the fake boarding pass, and use the real boarding pass that has the name from the stolen credit card. Then you board the plane, because they’re not checking your name against your ID at boarding.”

What if you don’t know how to steal a credit card?

“Then you’re a stupid terrorist and the government will catch you,” he said.

What if you don’t know how to download a PDF of an actual boarding pass and alter it on a home computer?

“Then you’re a stupid terrorist and the government will catch you.”

I couldn’t believe that what Schneier was saying was true—in the national debate over the no-fly list, it is seldom, if ever, mentioned that the no-fly list doesn’t work. “It’s true,” he said. “The gap blows the whole system out of the water.”

Bruce Schneier on wholesale, constant surveillance

From Stephen J. Dubner’s interview with Bruce Schneier in “Bruce Schneier Blazes Through Your Questions” (The New York Times: 4 December 2007):

There’s a huge difference between nosy neighbors and cameras. Cameras are everywhere. Cameras are always on. Cameras have perfect memory. It’s not the surveillance we’ve been used to; it’s wholesale surveillance. I wrote about this here, and said this: “Wholesale surveillance is a whole new world. It’s not ‘follow that car,’ it’s ‘follow every car.’ The National Security Agency can eavesdrop on every phone call, looking for patterns of communication or keywords that might indicate a conversation between terrorists. Many airports collect the license plates of every car in their parking lots, and can use that database to locate suspicious or abandoned cars. Several cities have stationary or car-mounted license-plate scanners that keep records of every car that passes, and save that data for later analysis.

“More and more, we leave a trail of electronic footprints as we go through our daily lives. We used to walk into a bookstore, browse, and buy a book with cash. Now we visit Amazon, and all of our browsing and purchases are recorded. We used to throw a quarter in a toll booth; now EZ Pass records the date and time our car passed through the booth. Data about us are collected when we make a phone call, send an e-mail message, make a purchase with our credit card, or visit a Web site.”

What’s happening is that we are all effectively under constant surveillance. No one is looking at the data most of the time, but we can all be watched in the past, present, and future. And while mining this data is mostly useless for finding terrorists (I wrote about that here), it’s very useful in controlling a population.

Richard Stallman on why “intellectual property” is a misnomer

From Richard Stallman’s “Transcript of Richard Stallman at the 4th international GPLv3 conference; 23rd August 2006” (FSF Europe: 23 August 2006):

Anyway, the term “intellectual property” is a propaganda term which should never be used, because merely using it, no matter what you say about it, presumes it makes sense. It doesn’t really make sense, because it lumps together several different laws that are more different than similar.

For instance, copyright law and patent law have a little bit in common, but all the details are different and their social effects are different. To try to treat them as they were one thing, is already an error.

To even talk about anything that includes copyright and patent law, means you’re already mistaken. That term systematically leads people into mistakes. But, copyright law and patent law are not the only ones it includes. It also includes trademark law, for instance, which has nothing in common with copyright or patent law. So anyone talking about “quote intellectual property unquote”, is always talking about all of those and many others as well and making nonsensical statements.

So, when you say that you especially object to it when it’s used for Free Software, you’re suggesting it might be a little more legitimate when talking about proprietary software. Yes, software can be copyrighted. And yes, in some countries techniques can be patented. And certainly there can be trademark names for programs, which I think is fine. There’s no problem there. But these are three completely different things, and any attempt to mix them up – any practice which encourages people to lump them together is a terribly harmful practice. We have to totally reject the term “quote intellectual property unquote”. I will not let any excuse convince me to accept the meaningfulness of that term.

When people say “well, what would you call it?”, the answer is that I deny there is an “it” there. There are three, and many more, laws there, and I talk about these laws by their names, and I don’t mix them up.

More problems with voting, election 2008

From Ian Urbina’s “High Turnout May Add to Problems at Polling Places” (The New York Times: 3 November 2008):

Two-thirds of voters will mark their choice with a pencil on a paper ballot that is counted by an optical scanning machine, a method considered far more reliable and verifiable than touch screens. But paper ballots bring their own potential problems, voting experts say.

The scanners can break down, leading to delays and confusion for poll workers and voters. And the paper ballots of about a third of all voters will be counted not at the polling place but later at a central county location. That means that if a voter has made an error — not filling in an oval properly, for example, a mistake often made by the kind of novice voters who will be flocking to the polls — it will not be caught until it is too late. As a result, those ballots will be disqualified.

About a fourth of voters will still use electronic machines that offer no paper record to verify that their choice was accurately recorded, even though these machines are vulnerable to hacking and crashes that drop votes. The machines will be used by most voters in Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. Eight other states, including Georgia, Maryland, New Jersey and South Carolina, will use touch-screen machines with no paper trails.

Florida has switched to its third ballot system in the past three election cycles, and glitches associated with the transition have caused confusion at early voting sites, election officials said. The state went back to using scanned paper ballots this year after touch-screen machines in Sarasota County failed to record any choice for 18,000 voters in a fiercely contested House race in 2006.

Voters in Colorado, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia have reported using touch-screen machines that at least initially registered their choice for the wrong candidate or party.

Most states have passed laws requiring paper records of every vote cast, which experts consider an important safeguard. But most of them do not have strong audit laws to ensure that machine totals are vigilantly checked against the paper records.

In Ohio, Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner sued the maker of the touch-screen equipment used in half of her state’s 88 counties after an investigation showed that the machines “dropped” votes in recent elections when memory cards were uploaded to computer servers.

A report released last month by several voting rights groups found that eight of the states using touch-screen machines, including Colorado and Virginia, had no guidance or requirement to stock emergency paper ballots at the polls if the machines broke down.

Matthew, the blind phone phreaker

From Kevin Poulsen’s “Teenage Hacker Is Blind, Brash and in the Crosshairs of the FBI” (Wired: 29 February 2008):

At 4 in the morning of May 1, 2005, deputies from the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office converged on the suburban Colorado Springs home of Richard Gasper, a TSA screener at the local Colorado Springs Municipal Airport. They were expecting to find a desperate, suicidal gunman holding Gasper and his daughter hostage.

“I will shoot,” the gravely voice had warned, in a phone call to police minutes earlier. “I’m not afraid. I will shoot, and then I will kill myself, because I don’t care.”

But instead of a gunman, it was Gasper himself who stepped into the glare of police floodlights. Deputies ordered Gasper’s hands up and held him for 90 minutes while searching the house. They found no armed intruder, no hostages bound in duct tape. Just Gasper’s 18-year-old daughter and his baffled parents.

A federal Joint Terrorism Task Force would later conclude that Gasper had been the victim of a new type of nasty hoax, called “swatting,” that was spreading across the United States. Pranksters were phoning police with fake murders and hostage crises, spoofing their caller IDs so the calls appear to be coming from inside the target’s home. The result: police SWAT teams rolling to the scene, sometimes bursting into homes, guns drawn.

Now the FBI thinks it has identified the culprit in the Colorado swatting as a 17-year-old East Boston phone phreak known as “Li’l Hacker.” Because he’s underage, is not reporting Li’l Hacker’s last name. His first name is Matthew, and he poses a unique challenge to the federal justice system, because he is blind from birth.

Interviews by with Matt and his associates, and a review of court documents, FBI reports and audio recordings, paints a picture of a young man with an uncanny talent for quick telephone con jobs. Able to commit vast amounts of information to memory instantly, Matt has mastered the intricacies of telephone switching systems, while developing an innate understanding of human psychology and organization culture — knowledge that he uses to manipulate his patsies and torment his foes.

Matt says he ordered phone company switch manuals off the internet and paid to have them translated into Braille. He became a regular caller to internal telephone company lines, where he’d masquerade as an employee to perform tricks like tracing telephone calls, getting free phone features, obtaining confidential customer information and disconnecting his rivals’ phones.

It was, relatively speaking, mild stuff. The teen though, soon fell in with a bad crowd. The party lines were dominated by a gang of half-a-dozen miscreants who informally called themselves the “Wrecking Crew” and “The Cavalry.”

By then, Matt’s reputation had taken on a life of its own, and tales of some of his hacks — perhaps apocryphal — are now legends. According to Daniels, he hacked his school’s PBX so that every phone would ring at once. Another time, he took control of a hotel elevator, sending it up and down over and over again. One story has it that Matt phoned a telephone company frame room worker at home in the middle of the night, and persuaded him to get out of bed and return to work to disconnect someone’s phone.

How Obama raised money in Silicon Valley & using the Net

From Joshua Green’s “The Amazing Money Machine” (The Atlantic: June 2008):

That early fund-raiser [in February 2007] and others like it were important to Obama in several respects. As someone attempting to build a campaign on the fly, he needed money to operate. As someone who dared challenge Hillary Clinton, he needed a considerable amount of it. And as a newcomer to national politics, though he had grassroots appeal, he needed to establish credibility by making inroads to major donors—most of whom, in California as elsewhere, had been locked down by the Clinton campaign.

Silicon Valley was a notable exception. The Internet was still in its infancy when Bill Clinton last ran for president, in 1996, and most of the immense fortunes had not yet come into being; the emerging tech class had not yet taken shape. So, unlike the magnates in California real estate (Walter Shorenstein), apparel (Esprit founder Susie Tompkins Buell), and entertainment (name your Hollywood celeb), who all had long-established loyalty to the Clintons, the tech community was up for grabs in 2007. In a colossal error of judgment, the Clinton campaign never made a serious approach, assuming that Obama would fade and that lack of money and cutting-edge technology couldn’t possibly factor into what was expected to be an easy race. Some of her staff tried to arrange “prospect meetings” in Silicon Valley, but they were overruled. “There was massive frustration about not being able to go out there and recruit people,” a Clinton consultant told me last year. As a result, the wealthiest region of the wealthiest state in the nation was left to Barack Obama.

Furthermore, in Silicon Valley’s unique reckoning, what everyone else considered to be Obama’s major shortcomings—his youth, his inexperience—here counted as prime assets.

[John Roos, Obama’s Northern California finance chair and the CEO of the Palo Alto law firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati]: “… we recognize what great companies have been built on, and that’s ideas, talent, and inspirational leadership.”

The true killer app on is the suite of fund-raising tools. You can, of course, click on a button and make a donation, or you can sign up for the subscription model, as thousands already have, and donate a little every month. You can set up your own page, establish your target number, pound your friends into submission with e-mails to pony up, and watch your personal fund-raising “thermometer” rise. “The idea,” [Joe Rospars, a veteran of Dean’s campaign who had gone on to found an Internet fund-raising company and became Obama’s new-media director] says, “is to give them the tools and have them go out and do all this on their own.”

“What’s amazing,” says Peter Leyden of the New Politics Institute, “is that Hillary built the best campaign that has ever been done in Democratic politics on the old model—she raised more money than anyone before her, she locked down all the party stalwarts, she assembled an all-star team of consultants, and she really mastered this top-down, command-and-control type of outfit. And yet, she’s getting beaten by this political start-up that is essentially a totally different model of the new politics.”

Before leaving Silicon Valley, I stopped by the local Obama headquarters. It was a Friday morning in early March, and the circus had passed through town more than a month earlier, after Obama lost the California primary by nine points. Yet his headquarters was not only open but jammed with volunteers. Soon after I arrived, everyone gathered around a speakerphone, and Obama himself, between votes on the Senate floor, gave a brief hortatory speech telling volunteers to call wavering Edwards delegates in Iowa before the county conventions that Saturday (they took place two months after the presidential caucuses). Afterward, people headed off to rows of computers, put on telephone headsets, and began punching up phone numbers on the Web site, ringing a desk bell after every successful call. The next day, Obama gained nine delegates, including a Clinton delegate.

The most striking thing about all this was that the headquarters is entirely self-sufficient—not a dime has come from the Obama campaign. Instead, everything from the computers to the telephones to the doughnuts and coffee—even the building’s rent and utilities—is user-generated, arranged and paid for by local volunteers. It is one of several such examples across the country, and no other campaign has put together anything that can match this level of self-sufficiency.

But while his rivals continued to depend on big givers, Obama gained more and more small donors, until they finally eclipsed the big ones altogether. In February, the Obama campaign reported that 94 percent of their donations came in increments of $200 or less, versus 26 percent for Clinton and 13 percent for McCain. Obama’s claim of 1,276,000 donors through March is so large that Clinton doesn’t bother to compete; she stopped regularly providing her own number last year.

“If the typical Gore event was 20 people in a living room writing six-figure checks,” Gorenberg told me, “and the Kerry event was 2,000 people in a hotel ballroom writing four-figure checks, this year for Obama we have stadium rallies of 20,000 people who pay absolutely nothing, and then go home and contribute a few dollars online.” Obama himself shrewdly capitalizes on both the turnout and the connectivity of his stadium crowds by routinely asking them to hold up their cell phones and punch in a five-digit number to text their contact information to the campaign—to win their commitment right there on the spot.

Cloned trucks used to commit crimes

From Brian Ross’ “Fake FedEx Trucks; When the Drugs Absolutely Have to Get There” (ABC News: 18 January 2008):

Savvy criminals are using some of the country’s most credible logos, including FedEx, Wal-Mart, DirecTV and the U.S. Border Patrol, to create fake trucks to smuggle drugs, money and illegal aliens across the border, according to a report by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Termed “cloned” vehicles, the report also warns that terrorists could use the same fake trucks to gain access to secure areas with hidden weapons.

The report says criminals have been able to easily obtain the necessary vinyl logo markings and signs for $6,000 or less. Authorities say “cosmetically cloned commercial vehicles are not illegal.”

In another case, a truck painted with DirecTV and other markings was pulled over in a routine traffic stop in Mississippi and discovered to be carrying 786 pounds of cocaine.

Police said they became suspicious because the truck carried the markings or DirecTV and several of its rivals. An 800 number on the truck’s rear to report bad driving referred callers to an adult sex chat line.

The latest on electronic voting machines

From James Turner’s interview with Dr. Barbara Simons, past President of the Association for Computing Machinery & recent appointee to the Advisory Board of the Federal Election Assistance Commission, at “A 2008 e-Voting Wrapup with Dr. Barbara Simons” (O’Reilly Media: 7 November 2008):

[Note from Scott: headers added by me]

Optical Scan: Good & Bad

And most of the voting in Minnesota was done on precinct based optical scan machines, paper ballot which is then fed into the optical scanner at the precinct. And the good thing about that is it gives the voter immediate feedback if there is any problem, such as over-voting, voting twice for a candidate.

Well there’s several problems; one is–well first of all, as you say because these things have computers in them they can be mis-programmed, there can be software bugs. You could conceivably have malicious code. You could have the machines give you a different count from the right one. There was a situation back in the 2004 race where Gephardt in one of the Primaries–Gephardt received a large number of votes after he had withdrawn from the race. And this was done–using paper ballots, using optical scan paper ballots. I don’t know if it was this particular brand or not. And when they were recounted it was discovered that in fact that was the wrong result; that he had gotten fewer votes. Now I never saw an explanation for what happened but my guess is that whoever programmed these machines had mistakenly assigned the slot that was for Kerry to Gephardt and the slot that was for Gephardt to Kerry; that’s my guess. Now I don’t know if that’s true but if that did happen I think there’s very little reason to believe it was malicious because there was really nothing to be gained by doing that. So I think it was just an honest error but of course errors can occur.

DRE Studies

Ohio conducted a major study of electronic voting machines called the Everest Study which was commissioned by the current Secretary of State Bruner, Secretary of State Bruner and this study uncovered huge problems with these–with most of these voting systems, these touch screen voting systems. They were found to be insecure, unreliable, difficult to use; basically a similar study had been studied in California not too much earlier called the Top to Bottom Review and the Ohio study confirmed every–all of the problems that had been uncovered in California and found additional problems, so based on that there was a push to get rid of a lot of these machines.

States Using DREs

Maryland and Georgia are entirely touch screen States and so is New Jersey. In Maryland they’re supposed to replace them with optical scan paper ballots by 2010 but there’s some concern that there may not be the funding to do that. In fact Maryland and Georgia both use Diebold which is now called Premier, paperless touch screen voting machines; Georgia started using them in 2002 and in that race, that’s the race in which Max Cleveland, the Democratic Senator, paraplegic from–the Vietnam War Vet was defeated and I know that there are some people who questioned the outcome of that race because the area polls had showed him winning. And because that race–those machines are paperless there was no way to check the outcome. Another thing that was of a concern in Maryland in 2002 was that–I mean in Georgia in 2002 was that there were last minute software patches being added to the machines just before the Election and the software patches hadn’t really been inspected by any kind of independent agency.

More on Optical Scans

Well I think scanned ballots–well certainly scanned ballots give you a paper trail and they give you a good paper trail. The kind of paper trail you want and it’s not really a paper trail; it’s paper ballots because they are the ballots. What you want is you want it to be easy to audit and recount an election. And I think that’s something that really people hadn’t taken into consideration early on when a lot of these machines were first designed and purchased.


One of the things that was investigated in California when they did the Top to Bottom Review was just how easy is it for people with disabilities to use these touch screen machines? Nobody had ever done that before and these test results came back very negatively. If you look at the California results they’re very negative on these touch screen machines. In many cases people in wheelchairs had a very difficult time being able to operate them correctly, people who were blind sometimes had troubles understanding what was being said or things were said too loudly or too softly or they would get confused about the instructions or some of the ways that they had for manual inputting; their votes were confusing.

There is a–there are these things called Ballot Generating Devices which are not what we generally refer to as touch screen machines although they can be touch screen. The most widely used one is called the Auto Mark. And the way the Auto Mark works is you take a paper ballots, one of these optical scan ballots and you insert it into the Auto Mark and then it operates much the same way that these other paperless–potentially paperless touch screen machines work. It has a headphone–headset so that a blind voter can use it; it has–it’s possible for somebody in a wheelchair to vote, although in fact you don’t have to use this if you’re in a wheelchair; you can vote optical scan clearly. Somebody who has severe mobility impairments can vote on these machines using a sip, puff device where if you sip it’s a zero or one and if you puff it’s the opposite or a yes or a no. And these–the Auto Mark was designed with disability people in mind from early on. And it faired much better in the California tests. What it does is at the end when the voter with disabilities is finished he or she will say okay cast my ballot. At that point the Auto Mark simply marks the optical scan ballot; it just marks it. And then you have an optical scan ballot that can be read by an optical scanner. There should be no problems with it because it’s been generated by a machine. And you have a paper ballot that can be recounted.

Problems with DREs vs Optical Scans

One of the things to keep in–there’s a couple things to keep in mind when thinking about replacing these systems. The first is that these direct recording electronic systems or touch screen systems as they’re called they have to have–the States and localities that buy these systems have to have maintenance contracts with the vendors because they’re very complicated systems to maintain and of course the software is a secret. So some of these contracts are quite costly and these are ongoing expenses with these machines. In addition, because they have software in them they have to be securely stored and they have to be securely delivered and those create enormous problems especially when you have to worry about delivering large numbers of machines to places prior to the election. Frequently these machines end up staying in people’s garages or in churches for periods of time when they’re relatively insecure.

And you need far fewer scanners; the security issues with scanners are not as great because you can do an audit and a recount, so altogether it just seems to me that moving to paper based optical scan systems with precinct scanners so that the voter gets feedback on the ballot if the voter votes twice for President; the ballot is kicked out and the voter can vote a new ballot.

And as I say there is the Auto Mark for voters with disabilities to use; there’s also another system called Populex but that’s not as widely used as Auto Mark. There could be new systems coming forward.

1/2 of DREs Broken in Pennsylvania on Election Day

Editor’s Note: Dr. Simons wrote me later to say: “Many Pennsylvania polling places opened on election day with half or more of their voting machines broken — so they used emergency paper ballots until they could fix their machines.”