May 26, 2024

Archives for September 2011

Corruption Bureau assigns fox to guard henhouse

Recently I wrote about my discovery that someone erased evidence on an election computer in Cumberland County, NJ. After something went wrong in a Primary Election in June 2011, the Superior Court (the Hon. David E. Krell) had ordered the County Board of Elections to make the computer available for me (the Plaintiffs’ expert) to examine.

When I examined the computer on August 17, among those watching me were the County Administrator of Elections (Lizbeth Hernandez), the Director of the New Jersey Division of Elections (Robert Giles), and a Deputy Attorney General of the State of New Jersey (George Cohen). This is quite a lot of firepower for reviewing a rather small election (43 votes cast in total).

In my examination of the computer, I noticed that files and logs were erased on the day before. I notified the Court, and within a few days an IT specialist employed by the county wrote, in an affidavit, that he had been asked by the County Administrator of Elections to examine the computer the day before my own examination, and at that time he erased the files and cleared the logs.

We do not know exactly what motivated Ms. Hernandez to ask the IT specialist to fiddle with the computer. The IT specialist himself says “I was asked by Lizbeth Hernandez to determine the date the hardening process was applied to the laptop.” Why is this date important? Back in 2010, a different judge of the Superior Court (the Hon. Linda R. Feinberg) had ordered the State to secure the computers used in conduction elections by applying these “hardening guidelines.” Mr. Giles was the one responsible for making sure the State (and all its Counties) complied with this order, more than a year ago. In August 2011, did Mr. Giles ask Ms. Hernandez whether the “hardening guidelines” had been applied? Perhaps these election officials were concerned that I might discover something about late compliance, or noncompliance, with Judge Feinberg’s order.

That is, the IT specialist’s affidavit points to concern about whether Mr. Giles had effectively brought New Jersey (including Cumberland County) into compliance; by erasing the logs and temporary files, he erased evidence about compliance or noncompliance.

Judge Krell, down in Cumberland County, does not like people tampering with evidence in the cases that come before him. On September 9 he referred the possible evidence-tampering to the prosecutor, that is, to the NJ Attorney General’s office. As I described in “Will the NJ Attorney General Investigate the NJ Attorney General,” the Plaintiffs doubted that the AG would do a real investigation.

Judge Krell’s referral was directed to Christine Hoffman, Chief of the Corruption Bureau of the Office of the Attorney General. On September 20, 2011, Ms. Hoffman wrote in an official letter, “the Division of Criminal Justice will not pursue criminal charges at this time. This matter is being forwarded to your office for your review and whatever action you deem appropriate.”

And to whom is this letter addressed? To Mr. Robert Giles, Director, Division of Elections. This is like asking the fox to investigate whether proper security measures have been installed at the henhouse. Does this instill confidence in the integrity of elections in New Jersey?

Plaintiffs have asked that Judge Krell assign a special master to investigate all irregularities associated with the June 8, 2011 primary election, including the erasure of the information concerning hardening guidelines. The recent turn of events shows why an independent investigation should take place in Cumberland County.

Open Access to Scholarly Publications at Princeton

In its September 2011 meeting, the Faculty of Princeton University voted unanimously for a policy of open access to scholarly publications:

“The members of the Faculty of Princeton University strive to make their publications openly accessible to the public. To that end, each Faculty member hereby grants to The Trustees of Princeton University a nonexclusive, irrevocable, worldwide license to exercise any and all copyrights in his or her scholarly articles published in any medium, whether now known or later invented, provided the articles are not sold by the University for a profit, and to authorize others to do the same. This grant applies to all scholarly articles that any person authors or co-authors while appointed as a member of the Faculty, except for any such articles authored or co-authored before the adoption of this policy or subject to a conflicting agreement formed before the adoption of this policy. Upon the express direction of a Faculty member, the Provost or the Provost’s designate will waive or suspend application of this license for a particular article authored or co-authored by that Faculty member.

“The University hereby authorizes each member of the faculty to exercise any and all copyrights in his or her scholarly articles that are subject to the terms and conditions of the grant set forth above. This authorization is irrevocable, non-assignable, and may be amended by written agreement in the interest of further protecting and promoting the spirit of open access.”

Basically, this means that when professors publish their academic work in the form of articles in journals or conferences, they should not sign a publication contract that prevents the authors from also putting a copy of their paper on their own web page or in their university’s public-access repository.

Most publishers in Computer Science (ACM, IEEE, Springer, Cambridge, Usenix, etc.) already have standard contracts that are compatible with open access. Open access doesn’t prevent these publishers from having a pay wall, it allows other means of finding the same information. Many publishers in the natural sciences and the social sciences also have policies compatible with open access.

But some publishers in the sciences, in engineering, and in the humanities have more restrictive policies. Action like this by Princeton’s faculty (and by the faculties at more than a dozen other universities in 2009-10) will help push those publishers into the 21st century.

The complete report of the Committee on Open Access is available here.

What happens when the printed ballot face doesn't match the electronic ballot definition?

Part 4 of 4. Complete 4-part series available here.
The Sequoia AVC Advantage is an old-technology direct-recording electronic voting machine. It doesn’t have a video display; the candidate names are printed on a large sheet of paper, and voters indicate their choices by pressing buttons that are underneath the paper. A “ballot definition” file in an electronic cartridge associates candidate names with the button positions.

Clearly, it had better be the case that the candidate names on the printed paper match the candidate names in the ballot-definition file in the cartridge! Otherwise, voters will press the button for (e.g.,) Cynthia Zirkle, but the computer will record a vote for Vivian Henry, as happened in a recent election in New Jersey.

How do we know that this is what happened? As I reported to the Court in Zirkle v. Henry, the AVC Advantage prints the names of candidates, and how many votes each received, on a Results Report printout on a roll of cash-register tape. The printout reads, in this case,

    I23   Cynthia Zirkle      10
    I24   Ernest Zirkle         9
    J23   Vivian Henry        34
    J24   Mark A. Henry      33

In this election, four candidates are running for two positions in a vote-for-any-two election. Here, J23 indicates that the button at column J, row 23 on the face of the AVC advantage received 34 votes. The problem was that the poster-size printed paper covering the buttons had the name Cynthia Zirkle printed at position J23. Vivian Henry’s name was printed at position I23. That is, there was a mismatch between the printed paper and the electronic ballot-definition file. Similarly, the positions of Ernest Zirkle and Mark Henry were swapped.

Rebecca Mercuri told me that until the mid 1990s, the AVC Advantage firmware did not print the row/column numbers at all, so that mismatches like this were harder to detect.

One might think that all is well–there’s a fail-safe mechanism that can catch mistakes (or deliberate fraud) where the paper doesn’t match the electronic file. But in this election, the fail-safe mechanism did not work well at all.

First, there are almost no candidates or pollwatchers out there who know enough to look out for this kind of mismatch. In the Zirkle v. Henry election, Cynthia and Ernest Zirkle couldn’t tell from the documents available to them that the positions were switched. They and their lawyer got 28 (or more) sworn affidavits from citizens who said they voted for the Zirkles, and on that basis they got a court to permit an investigation. In any election that involved significantly more than 43 voters, it’s impractical to get sworn affidavits from everyone who voted for you. This election took place all on one voting machine; in big-time elections one would need to double-check the face of the ballot against the Results Report printout in every single precinct. This is physically possible, but it isn’t easy and independent pollwatchers are not trained to do it. In Zirkle v. Henry this came to light because certain experts got involved, but one can’t count on that in general.

Second, even in this case, the Court was uncomfortable just swapping the votes and declaring the Zirkles to be the winners of the election. That is, both the Plaintiffs (lawyers and expert witness for the Zirkles) and the Defendants (lawyers for the State of New Jersey and the County of Cumberland) stated to the court that they believed that Cynthia and Ernest Zirkle got 34 and 33 votes, respectively. Defendants Vivian and Mark Henry, representing themselves, took the position that a new election should be held.

In his ruling, the Court (Judge David Krell) said,

Based on all of the above, it is clear that the election at issue was defective and must be voided by the Court. While I do believe I have the authority to certify the Plaintiffs as the winners, I do not feel that this is the ideal result in this matter. … Accordingly, I am ordering a new election to be conducted.

If there was ever a case in which these row-and-column numbers could clearly indicate who won an election, this was it. And yet a very reasonable judge is uncomfortable using this information to declare a winner, and instead orders a new election.

Ordering a new election is not at all unreasonable, but it is important to remember that a new election can have its own problems. Citizens who came out to vote the first time may not have the time or inclination to vote again, and if so their (previous) legitimate exercise of the franchise is being devalued. Or, some who did not bother to vote the first time may take advantage of the “do-over.”

It is instructive to consider what would have happened if a similar kind of error had happened with optical-scan voting. It’s certainly possible that the position of names on the op-scan paper ballot might not match the programming of the optical-scan ballot-counter. In this case, the results would come out reversed just as they did in Zirkle v. Henry. But the Court would have simply ordered a recount, by hand, of the original paper ballots. Those ballots would have clearly showed the true result. No experts, and no do-over election, would have been necessary at all.

Will the NJ Attorney General investigate the NJ Attorney General?

Part 3 of 4
In my recent posts I wrote about my discovery that (apparently) a County employee tampered with evidence in a computer that the NJ Superior Court had Ordered the County to present for examination. I described this discovery to the Court (Judge David E. Krell); and then a County employee did admit deleting files. Judge Krell was very concerned about this possible spoliation of evidence. In his Order signed September 9, 2011, he wrote,

“AND IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that the court recommends that the New Jersey Attorney General (New Jersey Department of Law and Public Safety), Division of Criminal Justice, undertake an investigation of … the deletion of files on August 16, 2011, from the Board’s laptop computer … by the County’s computer technician who is reponsible for servicing the Board’s computers.”

During the hearing on September 1, Plaintiffs’ attorneys pointed out that the New Jersey Attorney General’s office had been co-counsel for the Defendants in Zirkle v. Henry. This means that lawyers from the AG’s office had very possibly advised the County employees before and after the evidence was erased. Plaintiffs’ attorneys pointed out that this would mean that Judge Krell was asking the Attorney General’s office to investigate itself. Plaintiffs asked the Court to appoint a Special Master.

Judge Krell explained why he was not inclined to do that. He said, “My understanding is Criminal Justice is totally separate from the Civil part of [the Attorney General’s] office.” That is, during the hearing the Judge stated his belief that the Division of Criminal Justice in the NJ Department of Law and Public Safety is sufficiently independent from the Division of Law in the Department of Law and Public Safety, such that it can properly investigate the possibility of criminal tampering of evidence in which attorneys from the Division of Law might have had a role.

I hope Judge Krell is right about that.

Crowdsourcing State Secrets

Those who regularly listen to Fresh Air may have heard a recent interview with journalist Dana Priest about the dramatic expansion of the intelligence community over the past ten years. The guest mentioned how the government had paid contractors several times what their own intelligence officials would be paid to perform the same analysis tasks. The guest also mentioned how unwieldy the massive network of contractors had become (to the point where even decided who gets top secret clearance had been contracted out). At the same time, in this age of Wikileaks and #Antisec, leaks and break-ins are becoming all the more common. It’s only a matter of time before thousands of military intelligence reports show up on Pastebin.

However, what if we didn’t have to pay this mass of analysts? What if we stopped worrying so much about leaks and embraced them? What if we could bring in anyone who wanted to analyze the insane amount of information by simply dumping large amounts of the raw data to a publicly-accessible location? What if we crowdsourced intelligence analysis?

Granted, we wouldn’t be able to just dump everything, as some items (such as “al-Qaeda’s number 5 may be house X in Waziristan, according to informant Y who lives in Taliban-controlled territory”) would be damaging if released. But (at least according to the interview) many of the items which are classified as top secret actually wouldn’t cause “exceptionally grave damage.” As for particularly sensitive (but could benefit from analysis) information in such documents, we could simply use pseudonyms and keep the pseudonym-real name mapping top secret.

Adversaries would almost certainly attempt to piece together false analyses. This simply becomes an instance of the Byzantine generals problem, but with a twist: because the mainstream media is always looking for the next sensational story, it would be performing much of the analysis. Because this creates a common goal between the public and the news outlets, there would be some level of trust that other (potentially adversarial) actors would not necessarily have.

In an era when the talking heads in Washington and the media want to cut everything from the tiny National Endowment for the Arts to gigantic Social Security, the last thing we need is to pay people to do work that many would do for free. Applying open government principles to data that do not necessarily need to be kept secret could go a long way toward reducing the part of government that most politicians are unwilling to touch.