Thursday, March 01, 2007

Evoting company allegedly threatens Dutch government

If this story is true or even just partly true, it merits widespread exposure. It clearly indicates the kind of serious problems a state can expose itself to when an electoral process is electronically facilitated and the electronic voting systems are supplied by a single or small number of dominant suppliers.

"After invoking the Dutch Freedom of Information Act, the "We do not trust voting computers" foundation has received a number of unnerving documents from the Dutch Electoral Council. These documents describe the wheeling and dealing of Jan Groenendaal, whose company is responsible for all the software sold by the Nedap/Groenendaal consortium that sells the voting computers used in over 90% of Dutch municipalities. Groenendaal's company writes the software that tabulates the election results on both the local and the national level. The Dutch government depends on Groenendaal's company to the extent that it currently cannot hold elections without his help. The Electoral Council also concludes this in worried letters (Dutch) to the responsible minister that are part of the correspondence now made public.

The letters also show that Groenendaal was more or less blackmailing the Dutch government at the time of the previous parliamentary elections. On November 10th, he sends an e-mail (english translation) warning the ministry that his company will cease all activity if Rop Gonggrijp of the "We do not trust voting computers" foundation becomes a member of the independent commission that is investigating the future of the electoral process. This commission was instituted after earlier exposés by the foundation Gonggrijp founded. Despite this intervention, Groenendaal probably senses that the commission's report (due in October 2007) is likely to negatively impact the value of his company. Therefore, Groenendaal makes a very straightforward business proposal in the same e-mail, : "The ministry buys the shares of our company at a reasonable price, [...] and we will still cooperate during the next election (the Dutch 2007 provincial elections to be held March 7th)."

The story is backed up with copies of actual documents apparently obtained under Dutch freedom of information regulations which, if the English translations supplied are accurate, make profoundly disturbing reading. Sample of an email (English translation) from Jan Groenendaal to Harke Heida in the Dutch government:

"Thank you for responding despite these busy times. Like no other we
know the stress surrounding an election. That's why we are were shocked
by the unnecessary and undesirable increase of pressure here.
However, the tenor of your answer is exactly what I didn't want to
hear. On hearing the word 'committee', leave alone 'broad committee',
my hair stands on end. For the cause of the current 'commotion' can
be attributed largely to that other commission (from Ireland) which
needed two years and 365 pages to cloud its incompetence...

It's not a secret that the moment hacker G. would be admitted to such a
committee, we will instantly suspend all our activities and invoke the

Otherwise, we've asked our Legal Adviser to examine the possibilities
to start criminal proceedings against this criminal, based on a
so-called section X procedure, for situations where the government has
been failing in fulfilling its law enforcement duty.

After all, his activities are disrupting society and thereby comparable
to acts of terrorism. Detention pending trial and a preliminary
investigation hearing would have been completely justified here...

If the department believes, as now obviously appears from the
disproportional concern, that we do not come up to the mark, then the
solution is clear;

* The department takes over the shares of our company at a
reasonable price,

* Ceases operations immediately

* Has its hands completely free for every future development that
can be thought off,

* Amortising the takeover expenses within a few elections by
means of charging the municipalities, which see temporarily
continuation of the service for a gentle price, unless off
course the ministry comes up with something better overnight.

* We will then still cooperate for the next elections (PS 2007)."

Contrary to Mr Gronenendaal's claims about the "incompetence" of the Irish Commission on Electronic voting, the work and reports of that body are models of clarity, rationality and common sense in outlining the challenges associated with electronic voting systems. His desire for Rop Gonggrijp to be treated as a terrorist for exposing the serious security problems with the Dutch evoting systems would be comical if it was not so scary. His threat to "suspend all our activities" should Mr Gonggrip become a member of the proposed Dutch commission to look into the voting system problems surely needs to be subject to a legality litmus test, as presumably does the proposal that the Dutch government buy out his company. In a subsequent letter (English translation) to the Dutch Minister of Governmental Innovation on 22 November 2006 Mr Groenendaal says:

"For different reasons than expected (retirement) the survival of our agency is at stake abruptly, and with that the preparation of the coming elections is in danger too. Correspondence on this matter with Mr Heide from your department did not produce any results. He refers to the independent committee that you have promised The House. I'm afraid we cannot nor want to wait for that.

My concrete proposal:

· The ministry takes over our agency, naturally at a suitable fee, and receives the
ownership of the software.
· Maintenance of the application is commissioned to a non-commercial supramunicipial
· We will make ourselves available, if desired, for supporting the transition.
I have to press for a quick response."

It seems on 11 December he sent another email in which he apparently says "I have ordered my employees to halt all activity until we have received an answer that is acceptable to us"

These events present a fundamental challenge to the workings of the Dutch democratic process, so surely the interest in this story has got to spread beyond the usual community of evoting geeks like yours truly? We can only hope.

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