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Political dirty tricks 2.0: Outsourcing voter suppression calls?

What happens when voter suppression calls get outsourced to India? How will law enforcement track down the evildoers, and what will this mean for our elections?

During my blog posts this week, I'll be focusing on ways in which the Internet can be used to disrupt elections and the political process. On Friday, I'll be giving a talk on the subject at the Anti Phishing Working Group eCrime Researchers Summit on the subject of Political Phishing.

In today's post: What happens when voter suppression calls get outsourced to India? How will law enforcement track down the evildoers, and what will this mean for our elections?

Shortly before the 2006 election, voters across Virginia received calls that falsely claimed that their voting places had changed. According to a sworn statement filed with the Board of Elections, a man said he got a phone message from the "Virginia Elections Commission" telling him that he was registered to vote in New York and would be "charged criminally" if he voted in Virginia. The FBI later opened an investigation into the calls.

Karl Rove / LolCat Builder

In 2004, Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land had to put out a statement in mid-October about where to send absentee ballots after voters in the Ann Arbor area received calls telling them to mail the ballots to the wrong address.

On election day 2002, computerized hang-up calls jammed phone lines set up by the New Hampshire Democratic Party and the Manchester firefighters' union. Over 800 phone calls were made to a get-out-the-vote phone bank over the course of two hours. James Tobin, the regional director of the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee wasinitially convicted and sentenced to 10 months in prison on charges of telephone harassment, but his conviction was later overturned by the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In total, the Republican National Committee spent over three-fourths of a million dollars to defend Tobin.

While these three incidents are all disgraceful examples of voter suppression tactics, the one silver lining is that the appropriate authorities were able to investigate, track the calls down to the source and, often, make arrests. This was primarily due to the fact that the calls were being made by U.S.-based companies, and thus the FBI was able to obtain call records, and then follow the money trail to the various state political organizations that had contracted out the immoral and often illegal tasks.

Which brings me to the point of today's blog post: My prediction for the next generation of voter suppression tactics.

Hunting down and prosecuting the perpetrators is not going to be so easy the next time around. If Dell and Citibank can outsource calling centers to India, it makes perfect sense that sleazy political activists can do the same. By placing a few thousand miles between the call centers and U.S. law enforcement, the funders of the next generation of dirty tricks will become almost impossible to track down and prosecute. And why not? It works for the phishers. Furthermore, if the call centers use prepaid voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services, it should add an additional layer of fog through which investigators will struggle to cut through.

This may not happen in 2008, or even 2010, but I'm fairly certain that it will happen eventually. Voter suppression is an immoral, yet valuable tactic used by both political parties. The only thing stopping them from using it more is the fact that it is often illegal, and at the very least, will make them look bad. If they can sever any links between the offending calls and their own squeaky clean political machines, the calls are bound to increase in number.

I jotted down a few back-of-a-napkin calculations to figure out how much it'd cost to call 1 million U.S. voters and speak to them for 10 minutes. Assuming approximately 4 cents per minute rates for VoIP calls, it'd cost around $200,000 just for the telephone time. To perform this in one day, you'd need access to about 5,500 home DSL lines (800kb upload).

Since the very act of voter suppression is already illegal, it doesn't seem to unreasonable to assume that the companies doing it would rent compromised botnets. I'm sure 5,500 bots could be rented for a very modest sum. Throw in $50,000 for setup and labor costs, and it shouldn't cost you more than $300,000 to initiate pre-recorded voter suppression calls against 1 million U.S. voters. Compared to the cost of a few commercials in Iowa, it's a steal.

The same task could be performed by live people in a foreign call center, although this would of course cost far more. However, by outsourcing voter suppression calls (both human and pre-recorded) to India and the Philippines, these next-gen Karl Roves will be able to make post-election investigation and prosecution of their crimes far more difficult, and save themselves some money in the process.