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MIT snared in dispute over voting machines

Firm: Students posted stolen Diebold files

Two students have embroiled the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in a nationwide controversy about the reliability of a company's high-tech voting machines.

Diebold Inc., of North Canton, Ohio, on Tuesday sent letters to MIT demanding that the school cut off Internet access to data files posted by C. Scott Ananian, a graduate student in computer science, and sophomore mathematics student David Meyer. The files, thousands of pages of Diebold internal documents, were stolen in March when someone broke into the Diebold computer network. They have been widely distributed on the Internet by political activists, who say the documents reveal serious flaws in Diebold's line of computerized voting machines.

Diebold says the documents are copyrighted and can't be shared. The company has been warning Internet providers and colleges to remove the files from their computers, or possibly face legal action.

A spokesman for MIT said school officials are looking into the matter "and will issue soon an appropriate and legal response."

Meyer said he had already heard from the school, which warned him to take down the Diebold material. "They said if I didn't remove it, they'd suspend my MIT [Internet] account," he said.

Ananian said he has heard nothing from MIT, but decided to take the files down until the school tells him it's safe to post them again. "I would like to hear from them that they are not going to sell me down the river," he said.

Ananian distributed the files throughout the Internet using a file-swapping program called BitTorrent. This software breaks the document into many parts, then distributes the parts over hundreds of computers. Ananian said that using BitTorrent may provide him some legal cover, because he's no longer hosting the full set of Diebold files on his own website. Meanwhile, students at other colleges have begun offering copies of the files.

Publishing the documents online has become a crusade for many Internet activists, who say Diebold is trying to conceal the truth about its voting machines.

"There's a lot of stuff here that's important to be known," Ananian said. The documents include internal e-mail messages that suggest Diebold workers were aware of serious problems with the voting machines, even as they were being used in elections.

Meyer said that even if the documents were stolen, they contain information the public needs. Diebold "should not be allowed to hide behind copyright law," he said.

About 33,000 Diebold machines are in use in the United States. Some experts have said the machines are inherently untrustworthy. In July, computer scientists at Johns Hopkins and Rice universities who analyzed Diebold's voting software said they found major security problems.

"Voters can trivially cast multiple ballots with no built-in traceability, administrative functions can be performed by regular voters, and the threats posed by insiders such as poll workers, software developers, and even janitors, is even greater," their report said. "There appears to have been little quality control in the process."

Spokesman Michael Jacobsen declined to talk about the dispute over Diebold products. But he said nobody is entitled to distribute Diebold files without permission. "As a company, we don't tolerate hacking of our website, or the circulation of stolen material on the Internet."

Jacobsen also warned that the leaked materials may have been altered, and that readers can't be certain a particular document came from Diebold.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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