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Voting the Virtual Way

Wednesday, September 29, 2004;

Only five weeks remain until Tuesday, Nov. 2, the day that more than 50 million Americans will use a computer to choose the next president. For one growing group of people, that means five weeks remain until the commencement of a debacle that could dwarf the one that afflicted Florida polling places in the 2000 presidential race.

Electronic voting, especially the kind that lets voters pick candidates by touching their preferred choices on a computer screen, was expected to be the cure for all the ills that ail the nation's voting system. Instead, it is under attack by activists who say the machines could throw elections by losing votes or providing opportunities for hackers, as washingtonpost.com reports in its new analysis, "E-Voting: Promise or Peril?"

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The report examines the ways that electronic voting could cause a stir across the nation, but focuses on how the debate will affect voters in Maryland, Northern Virginia and the District of Columbia Most useful to area residents are a clickable map that leads readers to information on what kinds of machines they will use to vote, as well as a video by post.com's John Poole that describes how machines created by Diebold Election Systems have made some big ripples in Maryland.

The lead article in the package looks at the different approaches the two states and the District take toward electronic voting, and looks at how the debate has prompted attempts to change the voting landscape in Congress and across the United States. The article cites R. Michael Alvarez, a professor at the California Institute of Technology, who says electronic voting could go off without a hitch as easily as it could cause big problems. Either way, he said, it will be a "massive experiment on Nov. 2."

Also check out the package for some of the conspiracy theories that some people attach to electronic voting, as well as a write-up of a voting exhibit underway at the Smithsonian's Museum of American History and a sampling of some of the D.C. area's more colorful election mishaps throughout the last century.

Inducers to the Left of Me, Pirates to the Right ...

Congress is rife with initiatives to put the brakes on Internet music piracy this week. First, the House of Representatives on Tuesday approved the "Piracy Deterrence and Education Act." The bill would let judges sentence people to up to three years in prison if they trade more than 1,000 illegally copied songs on peer-to-peer networks such as Kazaa or LimeWire. The Senate, meanwhile, is set to consider the "Induce Act" on Thursday, a bill that would allow copyright owners to sue people or companies that deliberately incite people into violating copyright law. Opponents of the bill say it could outlaw commonly used technologies like VCRs, DVD players and digital music devices.

Still Life With Worm

Cybersecurity experts (including the tech policy team here at washingtonpost.com) have spent a lot of time telling computer users to avoid opening attachments that they were not expecting because they might contain Internet viruses or worms. Inherent in that warning was the idea that it was still OK to open the e-mail messages themselves to see if they were legit. Those days may come to an end, however, now that hackers are developing ways to spike e-mail messages with harmful digital code. washingtonpost.com reported that hackers are making tools that exploit a security flaw in the code that Microsoft uses to display JPEG digital image files, the image format commonly found on millions of Web sites. No such worms have turned up yet, but Russ Cooper, chief scientist at Herndon, Va.-based security firm TruSecure Corp., said the hole "is just too attractive for the bad guys to pass up."

CLARIFICATION: An item in last week's Tech Policy & Security e-letter said that people who track down spammers could get paid under a plan cautiously endorsed by the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC in fact said that it would only consider supporting cash rewards for whistle-blowers inside or close to spamming operations.

Robert MacMillan, washingtonpost.com Tech Policy Editor

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