This weekly feature surveys top government IT-related news -- involving all levels of government, from the federal to state and local, and international news. It is designed to give readers a primer on current trends and developments affecting the industry's major and interesting players, surveying news headlines from around the world. Washingtonpost.com's Cynthia L. Webb pens the feature. E-mail Cindy Webb Cindy Webb's Daily Filter Column
From Shamos: "Electronic voting machines are not unauditable. The software that is used in them is available before, during and after the election to be examined. I do not discount the possibility that in isolated instances, someone might tamper with a machine and reset it to its original state before being discovered. There is no systematic, undiscoverable way to do this, however. It is not true that we insist on auditable original records as a matter of course. Electronic banking (accessing your bank account over the Internet from home) produces no auditable records in the sense meant by David Dill. Yet 91 percent of banks in the United States offers online banking, and it is perfectly well-accepted."
From Cohn: "What time has been teaching us with each election is that many of these systems, and certainly Diebold's, are far from perfect--they are in fact closer to prototypes than production machines. The push for voter-verified paper ballots and more openness and independent research into voting systems are two ways to ensure that these machines make it to the place where they are actually ready for prime time."
From Tokaji: "I don't for a moment dispute that it's possible to have problems with any type of voting equipment, paper-based or electronic, if proper procedures aren't followed. There's a much longer and more extensive history of problems with paper-based voting systems--from ballot stuffing in (Lyndon Johnson's) 1948 senatorial election, to ballot box lids floating in San Francisco Bay in 2001, to the miscalibration of the optical scan counters used in Napa County's 2004 election. Paper is no guarantee against fraud or error."
Elsewhere, columnist Molly Ivins weighed in on e-voting in a recent opinion piece: "The problems with electronic voting machines are numerous and grave, starting with the fact that the software which runs them is considered 'proprietary information' by the companies that make them. In other words, they won't tell anyone what it is, how it works or anything else about the systems, meaning we have no way of knowing if they're clean, reliable or even functional." Ivins said she supports a paper-trail requirement: "There are bills in both the U.S. Senate and House to require paper trails in time for the 2004 election, but they're stuck in committee. Take pen in hand and write (or email) your elected representative, ASAP. Then bask in the benign glow of civic rectitude that follows. Well done."
Meanwhile in California, some counties that were hit with decertifications of their e-voting systems by Secretary of State Kevin Shelley in April are planning to make enough improvements to be recertified. Shelley "recertified electronic voting systems in Shasta and Tehama counties Tuesday, bringing to five the number of counties allowed to use touch-screen voting in the Nov. 2 election. Earlier this month, Shelley recertified voting systems in Santa Clara, Merced and Orange counties," The Associated Press reported. "Shelley said the five counties agreed to new security conditions to use their machines in the November presidential election, including making paper ballots available to those who want to use them. The counties also agreed to share their computer source code with independent experts for analysis and undertake a new program of poll worker training on electronic voting machines."
Technology Headache for Hoover's Boys
The FBI's Virtual Case File System is facing fresh delays that will keep it from going live until year's end, Federal Computer Week and The New York Times reported this past week, citing FBI officials as sources. The system, being developed by contractor SAIC, "is now more than a year behind the original schedule. In May, the FBI's chief information officer Zalmai Azmi said some capabilities of the new system would be in place by the end of the year, several months after the previous mid-summer deadline," according to FCW.
The New York Times's front-page story on June 26 said the delay leaves "an important technological component of the administration's domestic security effort remains in limbo. The Virtual Case File system, which would allow agents to share information easily -- a critical shortcoming of the present system -- is already two years behind schedule and one bureau official who spoke on condition of anonymity went so far as to suggest that the program might ultimately have to be abandoned. Other F.B.I. officials denied that the situation was that dire, but they acknowledged that the program development was far slower than the bureau had initially expected. In a statement released Friday in response to inquiries from The New York Times, the bureau stated that it 'continues testing' the system to 'work through some remaining issues.'"
Abort, Retry, Reboot
The Justice Department's database on foreign lobbyists is in such technological bad shape that the Bush administration says it can't comply with the Center for Public Integrity's request for a copy of the database. "Implementing such a request risks a crash that cannot be fixed and could result in a major loss of data, which would be devastating," said Thomas J. McIntyre, chief in the Justice Department's Freedom of Information and Privacy Act unit. A copy of McIntyre's letter is online here.
According to The Associated Press, "Advocates for open government said the government's assertion that it could not copy data from its computers was unprecedented but representative of generally negative responses to Freedom of Information Act requests. 'This was a new one on us. We weren't aware there were databases that could be destroyed just by copying them,' Bob Williams of the Center for Public Integrity said Tuesday. The watchdog group in Washington made the request in January. He said the group expects to appeal the Justice Department's decision."
The center released its own take on the development: "Unlike foreign governments and political parties, foreign companies can file their lobby forms with the Senate Office of Public Records on Capitol Hill. Under the 1995 Lobbying Disclosure Act, private companies based outside the United States need only to fill out much shorter forms for Congress instead of the substantial information required by FARA. As the primary collecting point of information on foreign lobbying, the database is vital to tracking the actions of foreign governments in Washington."