Sunday, July 29, 2007

Researchers hack nearly every kind of voting kiosk available

Simply attempting to accomplish the goal stated in the title suggests that the researchers in question were hoping for a bit of free press. But given how important the transactions carried out by e-voting kiosks are, I hope they get a lot of it. According to this article from the San Francisco Chronicle, "state-sanctioned teams of computer hackers were able to break through the security of virtually every model of California's voting machines and change results or take control of some of the systems' electronic functions."

Now to be fair, the researchers were given the source code to the devices, as well as instruction manuals and physical access to the hardware itself, which isn't too likely to happen out in the real world. But given that two of the three items in question are a mere Internet leak away, it's reasonable to be a little bit worried about deploying these devices to hundreds of polling locations with minimal physical security come November.

Tags: electronic voting, kiosks

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Can burn on demand DVD kiosks save Blockbuster?

That's exactly the question that this article at Seeking Alpha asks about the movie rental giant. After all, we know that the DVD rental kiosk market has picked up considerably from the days when early pioneers like RedBox were testing out the business model. Yet, while some estimates indicate that we'll have over 10,000 of these devices in the US market by the end of 2007, the country's largest video rental retailer has been notably absent from participation. But rather than missing out on an "obvious opportunity," Seeking Alpha suggests that they may instead be passing up this wave of self-service devices in favor of the next generation terminal: a kiosk that would allow patrons to burn limited-time-use DVDs from a catalog of thousands of titles. The article speculates:
To a certain extent, Blockbuster will be interested in using the burn on demand kiosks in order to minimize real estate and cut down on employee costs, but the real benefit of the kiosks will be the new franchising opportunities that will open up to them. As the video store industry has gone into consolidation mode, Blockbuster’s franchisees have had a very difficult time adjusting to the new rental environment. Disagreements over the online program and the end of late fees has even caused one of their first franchise owners to sue Blockbuster for breach of contract. As the market has collapsed, attracting new capital has been difficult and Blockbuster has struggled in replacing this lost revenue.
Hardware and maintenance costs and licensing/security issues loom large as potential sticking points, but I really liked Seeking Alpha's notion that eventually Blockbuster's stores will look more like a Kinkos, with rows of terminals that can quickly produce any movie from a new blockbuster release to older, more obscure titles that don't often see the light of day (thank goodness for Netflix).

I'll say this: DVD rental kiosks make money. That industry as a whole has bucked the trend and once again proved that consumers really put convenience above all else. Fundamentally, burn-on-demand kiosks should play in the same space. However, CD burn-on-demand kiosks haven't fared as well, since it's fast and easy to download music right to a home PC. That's not the case (yet) for movies, but will it be enough to get consumers to embrace them? With a larger catalog of available titles, it would seem like a burn-on-demand kiosk would have more potential opportunities to reach out to increasingly fickle consumer audiences. But at the same time, the added cost and complexity of the devices could drive up rental prices or drive down overall profitability. (If you're new to the kiosk world you might want to take a look at WireSpring's series of pages and articles about kiosks).

Tags: Blockbuster, burn-on-demand, DVD kiosk

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

New York says e-voting software must be escrowed

In a blow to Microsoft and all electronic voting systems based on their Windows platform, the New York State Assembly recently upheld a bid that will require all voting software -- including the operating system upon which it runs -- be placed in a secured escrow so that it may be examined by experts in the event of a questionable outcome. While makers of the voting software itself (notable Diebold) were vocal about having the clause weakened or removed, Microsoft was even more argumentative, as the source code to the Windows OS is one of its most closely guarded secrets. As Bo Lipari, executive director of New Yorkers for Verified Voting, noted in this ComputerWorld article,
"concerned citizens created a groundswell of support in the legislature to ensure the law remained untouched...

"We won for a change," he said on Friday. He estimated that about 3,000 constituent calls had been placed with the legislature about the issue. "There was a huge outpouring of support and the legislature noticed this. It was a forceful way to remind them to re-affirm their commitment to these strong laws."

New York State Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton, a Democrat from the 125th Assembly District, echoed that sentiment. "The voting machine vendors have known for two years what our laws said," Lifton said Thursday. "Now they're saying that those parts of their systems using Microsoft software have to be proprietary? It's just wrong. We're holding firm on our current state law which calls for open source code.
"This is one extremely clear-cut example (to me, at least) of where opening up the source code is absolutely vital. While we can all hem and haw about the relative security and technological merits of opened versus proprietary source code, when it comes to the politics and the law, which both seem to attract trouble and corruption, the right to review every last subroutine and function of a voting machine is something that I'd like to see more states with electronic voting initiatives require.

Given incredibly short and poor history of electronic voting technologies in the US, my gut feeling right now is that relying on the vendors of these products to be open and honest (and knowledgeable about their products) is just asking for trouble.

Tags: electronic voting, voting kiosks, e-voting