|« December 2013|
I’m not the least surprised by this, and I don’t know many serious programmers who will be. Programmers and computer scientists have been raising a stink about electronic voting machines for several years, but it’s been difficult to explain to non-programmers the full extent of the danger. It’s nice to have a video that shows the complete cycle: how the machine can be subverted, how it can steal votes, and how the rogue software can cover its tracks. (The one thing about the video that did surprise me, by the way, was how quickly and easily the physical act of subverting the machine can be accomplished.)
Beyond this one example, though, are more dangers. I don’t believe that any such machine — any machine without a voter-verifiable paper trail — could be sufficiently secure for the purpose, even in principle. And that’s not just a hunch. I have good reasons for believing that it’s not possible to make such a machine secure enough to be entrusted with our votes.
The paper that’s available on the page with the video describes in detail the research that was performed, and the findings. It unavoidably contains some technical jargon, from the fields of software and security. Overall, though, it’s quite accessible, and I don’t think you need to be either a computer or a security expert to understand the issues. There’s also an executive summary that hits all the highlights.
Two years ago, when I went to vote, I was not amused to find myself having to vote on one of these very machines. In light of that, though, I most definitely was amused by the "My Vote Counted" sticker I was given as I left, and I felt compelled to augment the sticker's message. I’ll probably have to vote on the same machines again in a couple months. But I hope we’ll turn toward more secure, reliable equipment for future elections.
Nevertheless, the most disturbing thing to me about the whole affair is learning that, even if they knew there was a serious problem with the tiles, there would be nothing they could do. In such a case, I suppose there's always the chance of a rescue mission by one of the other shuttles or by a Russian craft. But you can also think of dozens of reasons why such a thing wouldn't be able to happen in time. So NASA says they didn't even do an EVA to check the tiles, presumably on the assumption that it would be better not to know. It's hard to argue with that, assuming that they really couldn't do anything about it.
I don't guess I'm really surprised by this. Working in vacuum and microgravity is difficult, and putting those tiles on is notoriously tricky under the best circumstances. I know they use a special adhesive, and who knows whether that would adhere or dry properly in vacuum, or in the cold? And maybe they have to be applied under high pressure. But even though I'm not surprised, it's very troubling to think about that situation: there's something badly wrong, and it seems trivial (missing tiles!), but the crew will die, and there's nothing they or anyone else can do.
It points to the next big challenges of spaceflight. Somehow we have to have a cheaper, simpler way out of the gravity well, so that we can have ships that are simple enough to be repaired in space. And we need to work on technologies that make it easier to work in microgravity and vacuum: lighter, less constricting and more flexible spacesuits, as well as thrusters or other tools that make it easier to get around, and ways to gain leverage in the absence of weight and friction.
(Oh, and I'll second what Rael said.)