Elections staff confused compression with encryption: Lost info on 2.4 million voters

August 2, 2012 at 7:48 am 1 comment

“Why should anyone learn anything about computing?  I don’t know anything about how my car works — I just drive it!”  Maybe people should know something about computing so that elections staff can avoid losing millions of voters worth of information?  (Thanks to Elizabeth Patitsas for this link.)

Elections Ontario staff who lost two memory sticks with the personal information of millions of voters did not encrypt the files because they didn’t know what encryption meant, privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian said Tuesday.

“They went online, they Googled it, and the closest they could discern was that encryption means zipping the data, which means compressing the data, not encrypting it,” Cavoukian said at a press conference.

The missing USB keys included voters’ full names, addresses, date of birth, gender and whether they voted in the last election — information that is a “gold mine” for identity thieves, warned Cavoukian.

via Elections Ontario confused compression with encryption after losing info on 2.4 million voters.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Mark Miller  |  August 2, 2012 at 5:19 pm

    I can’t remember where I saw this, but there was an election system snafu several years ago (I think it was local to the state of CO) where a city, or our state, tried to set up a voting system server that would service a wide area using a combination of off-the-shelf software. It turned out a printer driver installation reset some system flag that caused problems for the rest of the wide-area voting system. They didn’t think to look at the driver, because…it was “just a driver,” so they thought. This was during a time when local governments were just starting to use IT to create voting systems.

    The one early success story I heard about was in 2006, in the City of Ft. Collins, CO., where they had implemented a home-brew voter registration system using MS Access and an Oracle database that could retrieve registration records within 30 seconds. This was contrasted against a City of Denver web-based voter registration system that was constructed for the same election, where voters were waiting in line for 3 to 5 hours, because the registration system had been slowed to a crawl, due to IT administrators not load-testing their network before the election.

    A common theme with these stories was that the people who put the faulty systems together didn’t understand them with enough granularity to anticipate problems, because they thought they could delegate that responsibility to other parties, or didn’t understand the challenges that are introduced with scaling. In the “off-the-shelf” case, the people who wrote the off-the-shelf components had some common uses in mind when they wrote them, but likely didn’t anticipate it being used in the way that it was.

    There were too many assumptions put into these systems, and information exchange in the “chain of responsibility” was lossy. Whereas in the one case I read about that was a success, employees of the city government tasked with implementing a computerized voter registration system understood what would be required, and made the system themselves using technology that they could understand. Not to say that they couldn’t have done it even better, by improving what they understood, but they were a relative success compared to the cases that didn’t build it themselves.


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