Friday, February 14, 2003

More Voting Machine Info

More people are starting to notice problems with computerized voting machines. See Seeing the Forest for a list of articles on the subject. There's even a book, Black Box Voting: Ballot-Tampering in the 21st Century coming out in May. Maybe somebody in the mass media will notice. I rather doubt it.

To me, the most ominous item is that Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, founder of the biggest maker of voting machines in the country, may be planning to run for President in 2008. 'Ya see, normally, everybody tries to make sure the election process is as fair as possible. The Demicans may be in power now, but they know that the Republicrats will get in there eventually. If the Demicans gimmick the vote now, the Republicrats will use it against them later. Solution -- make sure the vote is as fair as possible. This is an idealization, of course. It breaks down when a single party has control of an area. However, then, it doesn't matter. From what I've heard, Richard J. Daley of Chicago never tampered with ballot boxes, either directly or via funny rules. He didn't have to. In case you're wondering, yes, Hagel did win in a completely unexpected upset, and, yes, his own company was the only one counting the votes. Folks, if somebody is going to put in the fix, they're going to do their darndest to make sure it's permanent.

A lot of the problem seems to be that all of the election officials responsible for these horrors are nontechnical people. They simply don't understand how computers work, and just accept the assurances of the manufacturers that everything is OK. Unfortunately, some of the investigators aren't so up on things, either. For example, Bev Harris, author of Black Box Voting, went to a great deal of trouble to try to track down a patch that was put into Georgia's voting machines shortly before the November 2002 elections. She asked "who examined the source code?" and "did you check that the patch altered only the files it was supposed to?". However, the patch was not to the actual voting software, but to the underlying Windows CE operating system. Better questions would have been "Was the patch signed by Microsoft? If not, who did sign it?" and "Did you check the signature"? However, of course, all the people that Harris talked to were also non-techies. I'll bet that the key programmers are overseas, in India, Russia or Ukraine. Hard to ask questions (Gavarete pa'Russki?), and harder to issue subpoenas.

Examining the source code is not very helpful anyway. Computer programs actually run "object code", which is not human readable. Before you run a program, it has to be translated from "source code", which a human can read, into "object code", which the machine can read. When verifying the code, the translation process can be subverted. Do you know that a particular hunk of object code really corresponds to the source code that you put in? This exact question was addressed by Ken Thompson, in his classic speech Reflections on Trusting Trust, in 1985. (Thompson, for the non-computer types out there, is the co-author of the Unix operating system and one of the major architects of today's computer world. Impressive dude.).

Basic answer -- you can't be sure. Does the source code represent its specification properly? Maybe. Does the object code correspond to the source code? Maybe. Does the object code actually get loaded into the machine? Maybe. Does the machine actually run your code? Maybe. Can the code be changed after it's loaded? Maybe. The only foolproof solution that anybody's been able to come up with is to have the machine print out a paper ballot, which is then counted like a normal ballot. This doesn't mean that the systems are useless -- the printed ballot would be a lot easier for a machine to read than any hand-marked ballot possibly could be. Point is that, as long as everything is stored as bits, there is no way to make sure that it has any relationship to the way people actually voted. Little pieces of paper give you something you can count, by hand if necessary.

Anyway, the "gold standard" of these references is the Rebecca Mercuri's Electronic Voting website. This is the place to go if you're arguing with your local election officials about these machines.

LATER: Another link, this one by a professor of cyberlaw and constitutional law at Yale. His opinion: in its haste to come up with an argument for appointing Georgie Bush President, the Supreme Court came up with an opinion that can be construed as declaring "unauditable" voting machines to be unconstitutional.

STILL LATER: Whoops! They're popping up all over the place! Here's Pandora's Black Box: Did it Really Count Your Vote?, from 1996. (This one is reprinted without the author's permission, so there's no telling how long it'll be there.)

LATER AGAIN: Good Grief! Now, there's a discussion over at Slashdot about Stanford professor David Dill's resolution on electronic voting Note for the non-computer types -- Slashdot is a heavy-duty computer nerd site, with a fair representation from the tinfoil-hat crowd. There is some good stuff there, however. To survive on the Web in any case, you need a really good built-in crap detector.

Wednesday, February 12, 2003

Follow the Money (Domestic)

Interesting article here on just who is funding all those "conservative think tanks". Turns out that an amazing number of conservatives are getting lots of money from a surprisingly small number of sources. Nothing really startling -- when a whole bunch of "independant" groups start yelling the same thing at the same time, it looks suspicious. When it's nonsensical, like the Bush tax cuts or the war fever for invading Iraq, even more so. Nice to have it confirmed, however.


Little timing problem here. Colin Powell announces that the Al-Jazeera network has a tape supposedly made by Osama bin Laden, and that he (Powell) has a transcript. Al-Jazeera chief editor Ibrahim Hilal says, "Nope. No tape here." A bit later, lo and behold, al Jazeera gets a tape. Hmm.

Yo! CIA! There's such a thing as being too efficient ...

What Would I Do …

… if I were in Saddam Hussein’s shoes? Now, I do not see any path out of this mess that does not involve an American invasion of Iraq. Georgie Bush wants a war, and he’s jolly well gonna get one. How could Saddam survive?

Well, there are some things I certainly would not do:

  • Take the money and run. Abdicate and move to a nice villa in Majorca or some such. You could have a lot of fun with the billions of dollars that Saddam has stashed away. However, he’d have to get one of those little machines that gives out numbers, like they use in delis, to keep the assassins under control. Saddam has a lot of people who don’t like him one little bit. More importantly, political power is the most addictive drug known, and it would be completely out of character to just toss it away.
  • Give up. Stop hassling the inspectors, show them where the poison gas is, and hope for the best. Way out of character, and probably useless anyway. Georgie Bush has as much as said that he wants Saddam’s head on a plate. Meekly kneeling down to the executioner would accomplish nothing except to make Georgie look like a hero.
  • Defend the Homeland. Send out the Republican Guard to fight for every square inch of Iraqi territory. This is, I think, exactly what Georgie is expecting Saddam to do. He does, the RG gets squashed like bugs, and the Americans roll into Baghdad unopposed. Game over.
  • Preemptive Strike. Start launching Scud missiles at the American troop buildups. This would do some damage, but would just give Georgie a lot of incentive and public support. Most of the peace movement would probably go away right then.

So what’s left ? Plenty. First some assumptions:

  • Americans have a very limited attention span. If the war can be drawn out until summer, Georgie’s public support will evaporate. The Americans will claim a victory, go home, bluster a lot, and start preparations for the 2004 elections.
  • Americans are averse to casualties. Whatever is done has to involve lots of dead American soldiers. note: I think that most other nationalities seriously underestimate Americans here, especially national leaders of the dictatorial disposition. However, Saddam almost certainly does think that way.
  • Americans are totally grossed out by civilian casualties. Put them in a situation where achieving a military objective may involve killing civilians and the objective probably won’t get accomplished. However, this reluctance does not extend to civilian infrastructure like power and water, even though its destruction is still a “war crime”. However, beware – any actual “war crimes” trials will be conducted by the Americans. Remember in WWII, the bombings of Coventry and Rotterdam were “war crimes”, but the bombings of Dresden and Tokyo weren’t. German subs sinking British merchant ships was a “war crime”; American subs sinking Japanese merchant ships wasn’t.
  • Americans see wars (especially safe little wars like an invasion of Iraq) as testing grounds for their little technological knicknaks. In Afghanistan and Desert Storm, they were quite effective. In Kosovo, a lot less so. Most of them are designed like video games; the more you make yourself look like a video game, the more effective they’ll be. The corollary is obvious – do your darndest to avoid looking like a video game.
  • In the open, the American army is unbeatable. In addition, anything that is an obvious military target (especially tanks), in the open, will be swatted by American airstrikes. This means that any shipment of troops, material, etc, has to be in position and under cover before the shin-kicking starts.
  • The Iraqi regular army is useless. They are poorly equipped, poorly trained, and have no particular loyalty to Saddam. The Republican Guards are the only forces we really have to play with.
  • Iraq has no capability in high technology. Anything more complicated than an artillery shell is going to have to be bought on the world market and converted to military use. Even then, it’s not a real High Percentage Shot. Essentially all Americans grew up in a society saturated with radios, TVs, cars, computers, satellites, video games, etc, etc, etc. Most Iraqis did not. Makes a big difference in attitude.

OK. So what do we do?

First, get rid of anything and everything that even looks like it might have something to do with nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons. In the coming fracas, they’ll be more of a liability than an asset, and their presence is Georgie’s entire rationale for starting this war in the first place. If it turns out that Iraq really did destroy all of its <echo_chamber>Weapons of Mass Destruction</echo_chamber>, Georgie would be in a huge amount of hot water. It could easily cost him the next election.

Second, move the Republican Guard into prepared positions inside cities, especially Baghdad and Basra. Get tanks and artillery under cover, where they can’t be spotted from the air but can be gotten into street fights quickly. An Iraqi tank is no match for an American tank, but it’s death on infantry, and the Americans don’t have enough tanks to have them everywhere.

Communications. Saddam should have long since put in a policy of “cellphones for everybody”. If the Americans bomb cellphone towers (they will) you can scream about “destruction of civilian infrastructure” and suchlike. However, the more you have, the harder it will be to get them all. And the cellphones will work just fine for communications with the troops. A bonus is that CDMA and GSM cellphones are encrypted. Won’t stop the Army COMINT guys for long (the encryption is deliberately crippled), but it should slow them down. An hour is a long time in house-to-house fighting, and there’s no a priori way to tell a harmless civilian call from a military command-and-control call without cracking it.

In addition, there are indications that you can use cellphone emissions to find “stealth” aircraft (see here or here for brief descriptions of How to Do It.) While this wouldn’t be very useful for Iraq as “air defense” (they simply don’t have much to shoot with), it would be an excellent early warning system.

Another thing that should have been done in the last ten years is to dig an extensive network of underground tunnels. These can be used to move troops around, but their main purpose is as command-and-control centers. When the war starts, nobody important should be “under” anything in particular. The Americans are very cagey about the exact capabilities of their “bunker busters”; best not to find out the hard way. However, the Americans can’t bomb everything. Make sure that there are no maps, and that anybody who knows where everything is is inside the tunnels.

The invasion will start with a 1-2 week intensive air attack. As soon as this starts, you can fire off the Scuds at the American staging areas. This is about the last chance we’ll have to shoot them off. Shoot a couple at Israel to show that you’re a Good Muslim, but remember who (and where!) the real enemy is. Don’t be too quick – the Americans assume they have the right to bomb anything they don’t like the looks of, and have been doing so since Desert Storm ended. If you jump the gun on an “ordinary” attack, you’ll be giving up the “moral high ground” by attacking first. Make sure this is the real thing. If you have antiship missiles, shoot them off too. They’d be more useful later, but your defenses will be “seriously degraded” by then. Use ‘em or lose ‘em.

Another thing to do now is to hand out small arms to all & sundry. Perhaps some civilians will take potshots at the Americans. It’ll certainly make things interesting for any occupation government. A lot of people will use them to settle old scores; this is cool. More civilian casualties to blame on the Americans.

As soon as the invasion starts, turn on the GPS jammers. Supposedly, Iraq got a whole bunch of these from (IIRC) Ukraine. Yeah, each jammer won’t last long, but it could really mess things up for troops in a city. “Where are you?” “The GPS says …uhh …” From what I’ve heard, they’re dirt cheap. There’s also the Serbian Microwave Oven Trick that might be worth a try. Note: I’ve seen “debunkings” of both these stories. However, the radio signals that GPS works on are mindbogglingly weak and should be easy to jam. As to “home on jam”, that’s why you have a lot of them. As to the Serbs using microwave ovens to decoy anti-radar missiles, if it doesn’t work, I know how to make a radar that’s immune to anti-radar missiles …

Again, when the invasion starts, send out the regular army. They’ll surrender in droves, and might actually slow the Americans down a bit. Send out RPVs (I’ve seen pictures of Iraqi RPVs, but I can’t find the link) with commercial video cameras strapped to them for intelligence. It’ll also make the Americans seriously nervous, as they’ll be expecting poison gas or anthrax or some such (if they see them at all). Don’t try to remote control them – the Americans will take them away from you. Just use a simple out-and-back timer.

When the Americans reach Baghdad is the time to start fighting. Street fighting is the Ultimate American Nightmare – see Blackhawk Down for details. Here’s a CNN article. Remember, the object is to delay and cause casualties. “Victory” means that the Americans get tired of getting shot and go home.

Will Saddam Do It?

Probably not. He’s never shown the glimmer of anything approaching tactical or strategic military talent. His talents tend toward more toward local politics and brutality to the helpless. The only reason Iraq survived the war with Iran was that the Iranians were even worse – they were the Muslim equivalent of the Plains Indian Ghost Dancers, believing that their religious faith would shield them from bullets. Didn’t work.

Probably, he’ll hide in a bunker under one of his “palaces” and get buried by a “bunker buster”. Note that experience in WWII with ”earthquake bombs” shows that near-misses are more effective than direct hits. The only defense is to be somewhere else when it hits.

You Know Bush is in Trouble ...

... when even the right wing whackjobs start to question the rationale for war in Iraq:

Explain it to me. A ratpack of Saudis blew up New York, so we're going to wreck Iraq. We're going to do it because Hussein has Weapons of Mass Destruction, except that he doesn't, as far as anyone can tell. The more he doesn't have them, the more we want to blow him up because he does, or doesn't, or would if he did. Maybe.

Yes, Fred is a whackjob. But he's an amusing whackjob, if you're not easily offended.

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