Thursday, November 17, 2011

Cyber Bullying in Connecticut: A Lesson in Empathy

Cyber bullying is the mean and unfair treatment of a person on the Internet. They had a feeding frenzy of it recently in Connecticut.[1] Before I report what happened there, please keep this set of questions in mind. That is, suppose a woman is the only one wearing a red dress at a party. During the event, the guy with the loudest mouth blurts out “of all the styles of dresses, the red dress is the bottom of the barrel!” How would the lone red dress wearer feel? Happy? Complimented? Attacked? Angry? Embarrassed? How would you feel? Here's what happened.

An anti-Internet voting political science department in a Connecticut university, and their allies, organized a lop-sided panel to “discuss” the pros and cons of the Northern state taking up Internet voting for their overseas military personnel. Three avidly anti-Internet voting computer science professors, and a rich lady who owns an anti-Internet voting website, were on one side of the panel. Completely alone on the other side was Natalie Tennant, Secretary of State for West Virginia.[2]

This wasn’t an actual “discussion;” instead, it was an online propaganda festival of anti-Internet voting negativity interspersed with just a few positive statements from Secretary Tennant. Ron Rivest, one of the biased computer scientists, provided some telling examples of the lack of scientific sophistication his side displayed. Early in the proceeding Professor Rivest wittily declared that the term “Internet voting” is an oxymoron, like “safe cigarettes.” Cute, but where’s the science? At no point in the day did he, or any of the opposition, present any facts about actual breaches of security in an Internet voting trial (except, of course, the DC hack, which was not an actual election [3]).

When the moderator suggested that there are several different types of voting technology, Prof Rivest blurted out that Internet voting is “the bottom of the barrel!”

Despite those comments, Secretary Tennant encouraged Connecticut to use Internet voting for its overseas military voters. She stated that the West Virginia legislature had long been concerned that members of the overseas military were unable to vote because the method of voting by mail was too inconvenient and prone to errors. After the 2009 MOVE Act required the states to set up systems for electronically sending ballots to overseas military, the state legislature began considering legislation to allow her office to set up a system of Internet voting. The resulting legislation passed unanimously.

The new law required an initial trial involving just a few counties. The first test was the primary vote in 2010. It went so well that Secretary Tennant asked the legislature to expand the number of counties involved for the general election vote, which they promptly did.

Professor Halderman interrupted Ms. Tennant and demanded to know how her office vetted the companies that provided the Internet voting service. She replied that the vendors had to agree to several conditions. One of these was that third party experts had to be allowed to inspect the equipment and operating codes the vendors used. She said the companies not only agreed to these conditions, but offered to do the whole job for free, as a demonstration project. Given that situation, the Secretary’s office decided not to exercise its right to bring in a third party inspector. She said she trusted the companies.

At one point, Prof Rivest, who had never had any personal interaction with the company representatives, declared that the vendors could be corrupt and she wouldn’t know it. Isn’t that possible, he demanded.

She said that besides trusting the vendor you have to trust every kind of vote counting machine, not just Internet voting servers. CT, for example, uses optical scanning machines to count its votes. The voter fills in a bubble with a pencil on a paper card. But suppose one of the employees feeding the cards to the scanning machine in the election office is an unscrupulous partisan. He can hide a piece of pencil lead under his finger nail, and put an extra mark on cards with votes he doesn’t like. Then the machine would reject the card as a double vote, and nobody would know that a vote had been sabotaged.

Her point, of course, is that every complex vote counting system requires some degree of trust. Election officials have to exercise their professional judgment as to when such trust is reasonable. In reply to a question from the moderator, Ms. Tennant stated that she trusted the workers in her department because it was like a small community. She trusted the system because it used military grade encryption, had an intrusion detection function, and other security checks. She also pointed out that it was a serious felony to tamper with elections, and this law is a part of the security system.

Professor Halderman pressed the matter by demanding to know if West Virginia would allow hackers a chance to try to hack into the system, like the officials did in Washington DC. She said that the system actually belonged to the companies, and that the state lacked the authority to invite hackers to freely test the system.

He: What’s so secret that venders won’t open it up?
She: I can’t answer for them, professor.
He: Why didn’t you require a public test?
She: (With a smile,) we did do some testing, and caught an inverted number.
He: In the future would you run a public trial, like DC?
She: I can’t say right now.

The website owner, Ms. Dzieduszycka-Suinat, suggested that West Virginia was using its overseas military voters as “guinea pigs.” Later Prof Rivest blurted out, with all the science he could muster, that Internet voting is “like skating on thin ice.”

Undaunted, Ms. Tennant stated in her concluding remarks that she still feels that she made the right judgment by trusting the companies. She felt that she was doing the right thing for West Virginia’s military voters. Her husband is stationed in Afghanistan, and he saw first hand how difficult voting is for many of the service members there. She has recieved letters of gratitude from military personnel. The lone defender of Internet voting on this panel, she said that if she must, for the sake of her military voters, (and I quote) “I’ll continue to sit up here and take the attacks, take the arrows ... and things like that!”

As the panelists rose from their seats to leave the stage, Ron Rivest was heard to exclaim, “Internet voting is like drunk driving,” and he burst into triumphant laughter.

[1] See video at[2] See Natalie Tennant: Internet Voting Profile in Courage
[3] RE: DC see

Email Denise Merrill Connecticut Secretary of State and ask that she follow West Virginia’s lead to serve CT’s military voters:
William J. Kelleher, Ph.D.
Twitter: wjkno1
Author of Internet Voting Now!
Kindle edition:
In paper:

Cyberulling, of course, is not limited to supporters of Internet voting. See this informative article --  Cyberbullying: How Bullies Have Moved From the Playground to the Web

For more on Alex Halderman see, in this blog,

Alex Halderman Debates Internet Voting Security w/ Me

1 comment:

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