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Sci Fi Channel warns of voting machine hacking

No, this isn't an "X-Files" episode. The cable network's Web site claims the threat is real.

By Devin Leonard, senior writer
Last Updated: October 27, 2008: 10:41 AM ET

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Sci Fi.com cites data from a consulting firm for its claims that the nation's voting machines could be hacked.
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The states with voting machines that are most susceptible to hacking are colored shades of orange and red on the Sci Fi Channel's map, found at dvice.com/voting.

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- People don't go to the Sci Fi Channel for its political coverage. They'd rather watch an "X-Files" rerun.

But with the presidential election a week away, the NBC Universal (GE, Fortune 500)-owned cable network for fans of the paranoid and the paranormal has unsettling news for American voters: someone might be able to hack into your state's voting machines and tamper with the results.

On Oct. 20, Scifi.com posted a map which ranks each state based on the potential for its technology to either be hacked or produce inaccurate results because of human error.

Craig Engler, senior vice president of Scifi.com, says the map is entirely serious, noting that it is based on voting machine data supplied by the political consulting firm Election Data Services. Scifi.com then discussed with experts which machines would be most susceptible to hacking or error.

"Voting machines use some of the most controversial technology that you come across," he said. "Our audience is extremely tech savvy, and they are increasingly asking, 'Is my ballot going to count the right way if I just touch a button on the screen?' "

The Web site said states like Georgia, Louisiana and South Carolina have the most to fear from hackers because they rely on electronic machines which can be rigged to steal votes with little chance of detection.

"Down on the Louisiana bayou, things are about as consistent as they get when it comes to this upcoming election, with the entire state using electronic voting machines," Scifi.com warned. "Because of that, it's on the riskier side of our hackability scale."

Election officials in Georgia, Louisiana and South Carolina strongly disputed Scifi.com's assertion that their electronic voting machines were vulnerable to hacking.

"They are a bunch of liars," fumed Jacques Berry, spokesman for the Louisiana Secretary of State's office. "This is a very irresponsible undertaking. Our machines are not hackable. I repeat. They are not hackable."

"I'm never watching 'Battlestar Galactica' again," he joked.

Scifi.com said that hackers could create viruses that spread among these machines and alter election results.

The map arguably fits in with the other fare on Scifi.com, such as shows like "Battlestar Galactica," or campy old movies like "The Attack of the Giant Leeches."

There are even articles about video games with headlines like "Is 'Grand Theft Auto IV' on the Verge of a Zombie Apocalypse?" So why not a chart that suggests the upcoming presidential election may resemble an updated "Twilight Zone" episode?

Electronic machines aren't the only ones that concern Scifi.com. The Web site also says that New York is the "most potentially error-prone state because of its reliance on antiquated...machines."

The Sci Fi Channel says the map received 30,000 page views in 24 hours. Perhaps not surprisingly, some visitors posted comments, saying it confirmed their distrust of the political system.

"If anyone thinks voter fraud does not exist, you are seriously, seriously naive," one wrote.

"I think all voting is b.s.," wrote another. "It can and will be hacked into. I do not trust or believe the gov anymore. I have a lot more to say on the matter. But I'd rather keep that to myself."

Engler insists that Scifi.com isn't trying to whip up hysteria among its visitors, some of who may more susceptible to paranoid theories than the average C-SPAN viewer.

"We're not saying, 'Oh my God! Your voting machine is going to be hacked!'" he said.

There's a disclaimer on the site, stating that Scifi.com is "in no way saying your vote is likely to be hacked or spoiled. There has never been a proven case of widespread technological voter fraud in any national U.S. election."

Giovanni Vigna, associate professor of computer science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says the Web site's findings are still important.

"I think they are doing something good," he said. "They are trying to make people aware of what's going on." To top of page

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