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Online dirty tricks may mar U.S. elections

  • Story Highlights
  • Activists say online misinformation campaigns threatens election process
  • Scammers use popular Internet scams like phishing and pharming
  • Political dirty tricksters go online because of low chances of being caught
  • Low-income, minority voters and young people are usually targeted
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By Stephanie Busari
CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- As the U.S. presidential elections draw closer, voting activists are bracing themselves for an onslaught of online dirty tricks and misinformation campaigns designed to deceive and disenfranchise voters.

Political dirty tricks and misinformation close to election time are, of course, nothing new. But experts say they are about to get nastier and more prevalent because of the ease of disseminating them online.

They cite young people, who are more likely to seek out information online, as being particularly vulnerable to these attacks.

Low-income and minority voters have been vulnerable in the past to nefarious tactics used to prevent them from exercising their right to vote.

This was a common feature of the 2006 election, when 14,000 Latino voters in Orange County, California, received letters telling them it was illegal for immigrants to vote.

Lillie Coney, associate director at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told of a variety of online tactics that are being used by would-be election saboteurs, determined to skew election results in their party's favor.

"We're seeing all sorts of ways in which these people can put out the message to first-time voters and those who are unsure of their voting rights. They are replacing the tactics we saw in previous election cycles," she said.

In the past, political gamesmanship relied on traditional methods like telephone calls, direct mail and leafleting.

During the U.S. 2004 and 2006 elections, flyers were distributed that falsely claimed that voters could be disqualified from voting in elections if they had parking violations, late rent or even outstanding child support payments.

Tough action has since been taken in the United States with the introduction of a Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act, which makes it a federal crime to "knowingly provide false information with the intent to disenfranchise another person in a federal election." Violators face up to five years in prison and fines of up to $250,000.

But tricksters have moved online because of the low probability of being caught, and also because anti-spam laws and "no-call" lists exempt political messages.

The timing of misinformation efforts is vital as the bad information needs to be sent relatively close to election day, with enough time to reach voters but not enough for opponents to employ countermeasures.

One of the most popular deceptive campaign methods is using Voice Over IP calls or "robocalls," Coney said.

These are popular because the calls don't come from a central location, so tracing the perpetrator is much harder. The number of calls that can be made is practically limitless.

What's more, Internet phone calls are not regulated, making it relatively easy for someone to misinform a huge number of people.

For example, during the primary season, anonymous robocalls were made during North Carolina that were designed to give voters the false impression that they were not already registered to vote.

Many of the voters who received those calls were black.

Voters in 11 states complained about similarly deceptive calls suggesting that they were linked to a national strategy of voter deception.

The speed of online communications allows scammers to be precise in reaching their targets, especially by taking advantage of existing Internet scams, like phishing and pharming.

Phishing typically involves fraudulent bulk e-mail messages that guide recipients to legitimate-looking but fake Web sites and try to get them to supply personal information.

Pharming secretly redirects traffic from a Web site to a different site altogether, even though the browser seems to be displaying the Web address that Internet users wanted to visit.

A hacker was able to redirect visitors to Barack Obama's Community Blogs site to Hillary Clinton's Web site in April by using similar methods.

"By early November, we're expecting spam emails to be sent giving the wrong location for a polling station, or, incorrect details about who has the right to vote," Coney said.

"There's even a Web site that's offering to register voters for $9.95. Of course, it doesn't cost anything to vote," Coney added.

Certainly, most Internet users are savvy about phishing emails and don't necessarily fall for them, but it is the mass reach that has activists like Coney worried.

In a tight race where every voter counts, the implications are serious.

Another weapon in the arsenal of online political scammers is "typo squatting," where people not connected to campaigns buy rights to a candidate's Internet address, with their name misspelled, using them to steal and potentially misinform supporters.

These people are virtually impossible to trace, especially if they use sites like DomainsByProxy, which specialize in maintaining the anonymity of Web site owners.

Oliver Friedrichs, director of Symantec's security response unit, said his company found that 47 out of 160 variations on www.barackobama.com were being "typo-squatted."

"You can guarantee that more of these will become common in future elections," Friedrichs said.

However, in the same way that saboteurs are using the Internet to spread misinformation and create voter confusion, there are numerous examples that highlight the positive ways the Internet is being used as a great democratic tool.

The Obama campaign has certainly exploited Internet social networking tools to the full. His success in primaries and caucuses across the country, as well as in raising unprecedented amounts of money through small donations, can be traced back to the Internet.

A group of University of Washington students has created a Facebook application called Your Revolution, where anyone with a Facebook account can join the cause and register to vote.

The application takes advantage of Washington and Arizona's new online voter registration legislation.

Andrew Rasiej, founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, argues that online voter-generated activism has become a full-fledged political force and one that can no longer be ignored.

"It's really rebalancing the power, not into the hands of the special interests and those with money but into the hands of citizens who actually now can organize themselves," he said.

"Let me just add that organized minorities are always more powerful than disorganized majorities."

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