Election tech company under scrutiny

Ciber temporarily blocked from testing

January 05, 2007|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,sun reporter

A Colorado-based company that has performed a critical check on Maryland's electronic voting machines for several years has been temporarily blocked from testing equipment nationwide after a federal agency determined it had not met new standards, officials said yesterday.

The New York Times first reported yesterday that the U.S. Election Assistance Commission has been holding up Ciber Inc.'s accreditation since a July review that found shortcomings in quality control and documentation. A second review was undertaken in December, the results of which are not final, according to a spokeswoman for the commission.

The large information technology company tests the software in Maryland's voting machines to ensure it correctly tallies votes, among other things, before the equipment is delivered to the State Board of Elections for further testing and use.

Ross Goldstein, deputy state administrator of the board, did not respond to questions about whether Ciber's accreditation woes affected the administration of Maryland's 2006 election.

Concerns about documentation and quality at Ciber are likely to be another factor in the General Assembly's debate over Maryland's voting system during the coming 90-day legislative session.

Human errors during a troubled primary and elsewhere have raised questions about whether the state's current touch-screen machines are too complex for officials and volunteers to manage and are vulnerable to tampering.

In October, disks from Ciber and its partner Wyle, which contained copies of the secret computer code that ran the state's elections in 2004, were anonymously delivered to a former state legislator's home, raising questions about the system's security. A spokeswoman for the FBI, which was contacted after the leak of disks, said that its investigation has been closed.

Wyle tests Maryland's voting hardware and earned accreditation this year from the commission after new standards went into effect in July. A third company, Systest, which does both hardware and software testing, also was accredited.

"The Election Assistance Commission has generally been lax in this area, so if they are holding up Ciber's accreditation, it calls into question the value of everything certified by them," said Aviel D. Rubin, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University and one of the first computer scientists to warn that a hacker could secretly alter results from some electronic voting machines, including Maryland's model.

But Gracia M. Hillman, a member of the federal commission's board, played down the problems and said that there was not enough evidence to question the quality of Ciber's previous work.

"The process is not over," she said. "Ciber still has an opportunity to respond with more information that we have requested. We have not denied them accreditation yet. The fact that a particular lab has not met all of our requirements is not necessarily an indication that the work that has been done up to this point has not been good."

Asked about the problems, commission spokeswoman Jeannie Layson wrote in an e-mail only that "conformity issues," including "documentation and lab procedures," were prompting further scrutiny from the agency.

Ciber spokesman Diane Stoner said the commission identified "a few items that we have since addressed."

Before July, laboratories were accredited by a national association of election directors, with equipment manufacturers paying for the tests - raising questions about potential conflicts of interest. Under the Help America Vote Act of 2002, accreditation responsibility has been transferred to the election commission, which has taken three years to get the program running. Even so, this recent round of accreditation is based on "interim" standards, which Stoner said are constantly changing.

Hillman said that the only conclusion she would make from the review of Ciber's procedures thus far was that the new federal accreditation program was going to be more rigorous than the old one.

"People should take comfort and be assured that the EAC is not playing around and making certain that the labs we accredit are the most competent and fully prepared to do this work," she said.

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

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