Over the last few years, casinos around the globe have been using increasingly high tech slot machines, but with high tech slot machines come the usual bugs. And that raises some interesting legal questions. In the past, we've noted numerous examples of casinos blaming software glitches for slot machine awards, and refusing to pay them out. And, usually, they're being allowed to do this. That seems a little troubling, but it can get a bit more complex, as in one case a few years ago, where a guy used a slot machine that had faulty software -- and was arrested for doing so. Each time he put in $1, it was credited as $10. Now, once he realizes this is happening, perhaps you can consider that fraud, but it does seem a bit dangerous to blame the guy for what was really a software glitch by the casino or slot machine vendor.
The latest such case, found via Slashdot, might not be quite as troubling. In this case, a guy more or less figured out a software glitch in a variety of slot machines that would enable a series of button presses that would lead to larger awards, and then he used that to win a lot of money. Now, I can definitely see the case for fraud here (and the guy has now been arrested). He didn't just spot a machine with a glitch, but he then actively exploited that glitch, knowing it was a glitch, and took steps to enable that glitch on various machines (to make it work, he apparently had to have casino staff change some settings on the machines, which they would do since he was a "high roller.")
Given that he was knowingly abusing this glitch, the fraud claims seem much more reasonable. However, there is still something worrying about charging someone for a crime for doing what a computer system allows them to do. He didn't technically hack the system -- he just figured out a bug in the software and used that to his advantage. There is at least some gray area, concerning whether or not some of the liability should fall back on the maker of the slot machine for leaving such a glitch in their software.
If someone pitched a movie based on e-voting machines that work as bad as the ones being used in the current election, the story would be dumped as being unrealistic. But truth is, indeed, often stranger than fiction. You may recall on Friday that we had a post about problems with e-voting machines in West Virginia selecting the wrong candidate when voters touched the screen. Various officials rushed to insist that there was absolutely nothing wrong. One, the local county clerk, Jeff Waybright insisted that the problems were "the result of voter error."
Well, it appears that a group called Video The Vote went and visited with Mr. Waybright as he showed them how the e-voting machines work, and perhaps the "human error" is on Mr. Waybright's part. The beginning of the video is troubling enough, as he brushes aside concerns while he shows a miscalibrated machine. He demonstrates how he clicks on one candidate and another is highlighted, in a tone of voice that suggests why would anyone possibly be upset or annoyed if that happened? He then oddly thinks the fact that his wildly miscalibrated machine enhances his point because when he clicks on Barack Obama's name, the actual name highlighted isn't McCain (of course, it's not Obama either, but he doesn't seem troubled by this). Waybright seems to think that the only complaint people are making is the fact that some tried to vote for the Democratic ticket and saw the Republican ticket show up -- when the real concern is simply the fact that when you touch one name, someone else's name is highlighted. Democrat or Republican really isn't the issue here.
However, then things get worse. After mocking the idea that anyone clicking on a Democratic ticket vote would get the Republican ticket vote, he shows how to correctly calibrate the machine, showing how easy it is to fix the "problems" of the miscalibrated machine. When he's done, to prove it works, he touches the box to vote for a straight Republican ticket ticket... and, wouldn't you know it, Ralph Nader's name is highlighted as the voter's choice. His response? "Oh, that's out of calibration!" as if it was no big deal, apparently missing the fact that he had just calibrated the machine. He then seems to think none of this is a big deal, because voters will see the misvote before they submit it, apparently unaware of the idea that many people are already quite distrustful of these machines, and seeing them highlight the wrong name over and over again will make them seriously question the legitimacy of the election.
The GAO had warned that there would be some pretty massive e-voting problems this year, as election officials were not properly trained on the already problematic machines, so it should come as little surprise that over in West Virginia, the "early voting" procedures have resulted in numerous complaints that the e-voting machines selected the wrong candidate. The scenario is depressingly similar to the one that The Simpsonspredicted, where the voter selects one name, and the other one shows up as highlighted. Poll workers told them to just keep clicking until the right one was chosen, and noted that the machines have "just been doing that."
What's more depressing is how everyone involved seems to brush this off as no big deal. Officials claimed that these "were isolated cases and that poll workers fixed the problems so the correct vote was cast." That may be true of the two people that CNN spoke too, but who knows if others got the machines to work properly. And then there's West Virginia's Secretary of State, Betty Ireland , who basically pulled a page from Sequoia's playbook, of covering her eyes and ears and screaming loudly that everything is fine:
"There are no problems with the machines as recalibrated. Touch-screen voting in West Virginia is accurate and secure."
Because you say so? As opposed to those who are actually voting and finding it's not? That's comforting.
In this case, the machines are supplied by ES&S whose machines (like both Sequoia and Diebold) have a relatively long history of screwing up at election time. ES&S is also the company where an employee of the company showed up here to berate us and insist that no independent experts should be allowed to look at the machines and that they were safe and reliable because those working at these firms knew better than the rest of us. It's as if the e-voting companies and the politicians think that if they just keep repeating it, maybe it will become true.