I was able to set up an interview with Thomas Niedermeyer, the head of the EBU voting system. And with some detailed questioning I was able to get answers about fraudulent voting in ESC—and it’s not what you’re expecting.
First off, Thomas is a very nice person. He looks pretty tired – this has got to be a killer week for him. But he’s clearly smart and able to speak to the issue.
Ok, so on to the discussion. He first walked me through the system. Your phone number is your ID. So your SIM card in your mobile and your number for a land line. Because it’s the SIM card, not the location of the phone, I still can’t vote (my SIM card is American) even though I’m in Sweden. But someone from Europe visiting the U.S. can vote because they have a European SIM card. (That’s an expensive vote for the international call – but Zlata is worth it!)
Which makes the rumors of bussing a bunch of students to a border to vote, then drive over the border, swap SIM cards, and then vote again, pretty questionable. Yes you can do this – but there’s no need to drive anywhere. Just buy all the SIM cards and have people swap them where they are. That’s also really expensive. You’re buying a SIM card for every 20 votes. And it takes time to swap, then vote.
So many people can vote twice, once with their cell phone and then again with their landline. I don’t see this being of much use for organized fraud. But it probably does occur for people that are strong supporters of an act. On the flip side, it probably all evens out as this is an individual decision, not an organized effort.
But they don’t use just the number, they also use the extension. So each room in a hotel or office can vote. So a maid in a hotel, a very busy maid, could probably cast votes for 10 phones. Same for a cleaning person in an office building. But in this case it’s the people that already hold these jobs. Organizing existing employees – that’s a lot of work and in the course of it, several would tell the press. I’m sure individuals do this, but on their own. And so again, it should even out although it would give a slight advantage to the cultures that dominate the cleaning jobs.
So I hit him with my first killer question. I just open up my Skype account and start calling. I can automate that and each call will come from a different number. Now we’re cooking – thousands of votes from each computer. Yes, but… They don’t allow calls from Skype accounts. Damn, thought I had him.
Not to worry, I then had my next killer question. The golden rule of security software is you make your system public. (The disadvantage of hackers using that knowledge to break it is outweighed by the advantage of others pointing out holes to fix them.) And EBU keeps their system secret. Thomas replied that they keep it confidential not to hide the information from hackers, but because they don’t want to give their competitors the info on how to run a safe and thorough voting system. It’s for competitive advantage. Damn, foiled again.
I also asked him how secure the voting systems were in places like Belarus and Azerbaijan (where the concept of let the voters decide is not understood). He was pretty careful with his words here but did say that they have people there to watch the system and the individual votes are passed from there on to their central servers. Aside from his assurances, the fact that there were votes for Armenia in Azerbaijan is a giant sign that ESC is the one free vote that occurs in Azerbaijan.
The bottom line is that there is no systemic vote fraud. First off, while there are lots of “I heard from a friend who heard from his brother who met a person who thinks he heard…”, there’s no specific evidence of anything. If fraud was attempted on the call in part, it would take a lot of people. And when a lot of people are involved – some talk.
The second is to directly hack the digame servers or network. Never say never on something like this, but they have those babies locked down tight. And unlike most systems where they have to be open to people and that provides multiple points of entry, these systems are only open to the phone switches. I think even the NSA would have trouble doing it because you would need physical access just to start.
It’s nice to claim VOTER FRAUD! If the act you love, or your country, does not do well. That beats the snot out of admitting that your favorite just was not that good. But it’s not happening. The system in place appears very well designed. And the final results are reasonable (while Buranovskiye Babushki makes me question the musical taste of Europe, they were clearly very popular).
Update: Please read EUROVISION VOTING SCANDAL: A STATISTICAL ANALYSIS OF EUROVISION VOTING FRAUD. There appears to be strong statistical evidence of vote fraud. What’s critical is for EBU to release the raw vote totals as this fraud may be the jury vote.
To read more of our coverage of the 2013 Eurovision voting scandal, click here.