E-Mailed Election Rumors Deceive Voters

Heard about the rumor that voting rules in Maryland bar people whose homes have been foreclosed from casting their ballots in the upcoming presidential election? Or about the e-mails that some Florida residents received informing them that their voter registration information would have to match up against state driver's license or federal Social Security databases on Election Day for them to be able to vote?

Both are examples of Internet-enabled communications tactics designed to actively mislead targeted voters about election rules, according to the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington-based civil liberties advocacy group. And such tactics are becoming increasingly prevalent as the Nov. 4 presidential election draws near , EPIC claimed in a report issued last week (download PDF).

Efforts to deceive would-be voters into staying home are by no means new, said Lillie Coney, an associate director at EPIC and public policy coordinator for the National Committee for Voter Integrity, which was set up by the advocacy group. Coney said disinformation campaigns have been used in previous elections to try to fool voters about election dates and times, the location of polling places, voter identification rules and eligibility requirements ? typically with a goal of suppressing voter participation among certain segments of the population.

In the past, deceptive messages usually were disseminated via phone calls, direct mailings, pamphlets and even door-to-door canvassing. But this election marks the first time that tools such as e-mail, blogs and social networking sites like YouTube are being used in a major way by the candidates and their supporters to canvass funds, rally people and communicate ideas. Not surprisingly, the Internet is also being used more and more to spread incorrect information, Coney warned. And it offers tricksters a great platform for doing so, she said.

For starters, people looking to launch false-info campaigns can surreptitiously harvest the demographic data they're interested in from certain Web sites or buy it from sites that sell such information, said Coney, who co-authored the EPIC report. The sites that can be tapped, she noted, include ones serving specific audiences ? for instance, Hispanics or Native Americans, people of a particular religion, hunters or nursing mothers. Popular social networks such as Facebook and MySpace also offer perpetrators a relatively easy way to target specific groups with their messages.

Juan Gilbert, an associate professor in the computer science and software engineering department at Auburn University, said that the near-total anonymity that the Internet can provide also makes it an effective medium for voter-deception campaigns. A perpetrator could target a group of people in one state "that you think are on the borderline" on voting for a particular candidate or issue, "nail them with a broadcast message in a matter of minutes and then simply disappear," Gilbert said.

And even such targeted e-mail messages often "generate a ripple effect that keeps on going" far beyond the original audience, said Gilbert, who also was a co-author of the EPIC report.

Coney agreed that deceptive messages and more generalized misinformation posted on rumor-mill Web sites and social networking groups usually don't stay localized for long. In short order, a message that originally was sent to 10,000 recipients may reach millions of people, she said. And because an e-mail forwarded by someone who the recipient knows and trusts is generally viewed as being more credible than one from a stranger, there is a greater tendency to believe the deceptive messages as they get sent from person to person, Coney claimed.

And it isn't just deceptive e-mails that voters need to be wary about, according to the EPIC report. Other tactics that have been seen, it said, include the use of spoofed Web sites to spread false information about election dates, polling locations and registration rules, and phishing attacks purportedly offering to help residents with tasks such as registering to vote or submitting a change-of-address request. In addition, denial-of-service attacks could be launched against voter information sites or toll-free phone lines through the use of messages designed to spur voters to contact election officials on some made-up pretext, the report said.

Even reputable Web sites could be broken into and used to send spam messages in favor of a candidate or to misdirect visitors to malicious Web sites that not only spew disinformation but also plant malware on computers, Coney said.

This isn't the first time that concerns have been raised about Internet-based deception efforts. Last November, for instance, security vendor Webroot Software Inc. warned that malicious hackers were looking to take advantage of the growing use of the Web as a communications and fundraising medium for presidential candidates by setting up fake campaign sites designed to lure unwary voters into parting with their money, personal data or both.

With exactly two weeks to go until the election, voters should be on the look-out for deceptive information and ensure that they don't get fooled by it, Coney said. She added that voters looking for valid information should go directly to official state and local election sites or visit the Election Protection site, which is run by a nonpartisan coalition.

People also should make sure that all needed security updates have been installed on their computers in order to prevent their systems from being broken into by opportunistic hackers when they visit election-related Web sites, Coney said.

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