back in december, i left myself a note to do some homework and make this comparison… with the election now just five months away, i guess it’s time to get this on the record. this won’t be as fully-developed as i might’ve hoped, but that’s what comments and links are about. the comparison between slot machines and voting machines has been made before, but i wanted to tie the two companies together in a sort of risk-assesment way.
in 1990, larry volk was killed shortly before he was to give testimony on how he programmed video gaming (as in gambling) machines for american coin – programmed them to cheat. nearly a decade later, the story got hot again with the confession of his killer. the story is great stuff for crime drama and mafia stories, and that’s been covered well already, but that’s not what interests me.
the issue for me is that even with the intense scrutiny of the gaming commission and state gaming control board – through a formal and documented procedure for review and approval of gambling machines – even with all those measures in place, bad code managed to get into the machines, get into the field and rip off players.
i’m not terribly concerned about ripping off gamblers, at least not personally. part of me wants to put some distance in this, and say that rigged gambling machines is, to some extent, part of the gamble. i guess the problem with that attitude is that it ignores the assurances that a gaming control board is supposed to provide. slot machines aren’t supposed to be part of the whole wild west “you takes your chances” mentality anymore. you’re supposed to know the gamble you’re taking, and i can appreciate that. but, the stakes are personal, and when we’re talking about gambling machines, the bets generally aren’t too huge, so the failure modes in this environment don’t get me too uncomfortable. ok, so you lost a dollar. ok, so you lost ten dollars. might be a big deal to you, but i’m sure i’ve been scammed out of ten dollars many times without even playing the machines.
the precise nature of the hack that is at the core of the larry volk/american coin story isn’t really important. what’s important is that there is a layer of protection between the player and the manufacturer, and that layer of protection is elaborate, well-funded, staffed by professionals, and does full reviews of both the hardware and software both before and after machines are approved for use in nevada. despite all that, about 1000 american coin machines were approved and in use for some time before being siezed by the gaming control board in july 1989.
of course, for-profit gaming is a bit different than civic-duty elections, and there are practical concerns – inspection and monitoring of slot machines in nevada has to be cost-effective, and there are tradeoffs made under that burden. machines are spot-checked (as opposed to individually checked) and they are only checked every couple years or so.
i’ve been on the diebold case for some time (watch your touchscreen, diebold compromises everything and takes cowards down with them, the flipside of diebold at swarthmore, diebold on election day, some diebold news, election day trouble, diebold woes in california). the latest that i mentioned was about a revised ethics policy at diebold, which they, presumably, instated to address some concerns of the lowly voters and their advocates. this isn’t just about diebold, of course, but diebold is here on the blog with a developed history.
if nevada can miss a few guys within a company chipping machines, what chance do our elections have with underskilled legislators and intermittantly-constituted election review boards have? are we supposed to rely on an ethics policy?
for elections, the stakes are a lot higher. vote on paper. be counted. be recountable.
update (2004.12.02): this post recently made an appearance over at democratic underground, but with a truncated [bad] link. i’ve fixed that on my end, but it would be better for them to fix it on their end. and if anyone is interested in working on democracy and technology, i’ve got a little project cooking in the background here, so get in touch.