|The Mezonic Agenda: Hacking the Presidency|
|author||Dr. Herbert Thompson, Spyros Nomikos|
|summary||A melodramatic exploration of the dangers of combining unscrupulous electronic voting system makers with a political machine willing to overlook the systems' flaws.|
The book chronicles the final week before security expert Professor Chad Davis is to testify before Congress on the security of a commercial e-voting software product made by a fictitious company, Advice Software, Inc.
Davis' testimony will ultimately determine if the software will be implemented for use during the United States' 2004 presidential election, and therefore create a huge windfall for the company. The company will do anything and everything it can to ensure that Davis provides positive testimony. Advice will stop at nothing to complete their mission; that means they'll engage in multiple murders, kidnapping and a slew of other nefarious activities. All of this is addition to simultaneously attempting to corner the video chip market, and create video drivers that send subliminal messages about which candidate to vote for.
As Albert Einstein said, "Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler." The plot could have been made much simpler to mimic reality and the current state of insecure e-voting systems. As in real life, the e-voting companies are getting away with providing insecure e-voting systems; under the nose of the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and an unsuspecting and apathetic voting public. The idea that an e-voting software company would resort to murder is where the book demonstrates it is a novel.
The reason e-voting companies and their insecure software can run roughshod through the FEC is that voting-system flaws do not have the same immediate tragic consequences that other product failures can. Plane crashes and adverse drug effects spur the FAA and FDA to take drastic actions and often overreact to an event; poorly written and insecure voting software is clearly not as newsworthy as a burning jet.
Combine this with a public that is utterly apathetic to voting in general and the situation is ripe for the situation where e-voting can have a near hypnotic effect on most people involved. Because voter turnout for U.S. presidential elections is quite low (60% of eligible voters cast their ballots in the November 2000 presidential election), and most people are completely unaware of the dangers of insecure voting applications, an under-funded federal agency can be manipulated by the e-voting vendors to roll out insecure voting software.
The international intrigue of the novel takes the reader to the RSA security conference in Amsterdam, where Davis is given a cryptic CD-ROM by Baff Lexicon, a notorious international hacker. Lexicon suggests there is serious problems with the software and will brief Davis at midnight that night at the Amsterdam Hard Rock Cafe on the details. Unfortunately, Lexicon is being trailed by undercover agents from Advice, and is murdered a few hours later by a Yugoslavian hit man that the company seems to have on retainer.
Davis now has the difficult job of unlocking the cryptic information on the CD-ROM on his own. That same CD-ROM is included with the book, and the reader is invited to join Davis in attempting to decrypt the contents of the CD and the conspiracy that Advice Software is attempting to perpetrate; namely the outcome of the 2004 election.
(If you are not interested in buying the book, anyone can download the software without having to buy the book. The software is actually part of a contest and the winner will receive a free pass to the BlackHat 2005 conference.)
A good section of the novel then details how Davis attempts to decipher the secrets that Baff Lexicon was attempting to convey to him. The two authors of The Mezonic Agenda have, respectively, a PhD in applied mathematics and a Master's in chemical engineering, and write in a someone choppy style representative of their technical backgrounds. Occasional errors in grammar and spelling are excused, save for the egregious misspelling of Learjet on page 154.
The story concludes with a moral dilemma that Davis faces: with his wife and daughter kidnapped by the Advice Software hit man, does he provide favorable, yet dishonest testimony about the software and watch his family set free; or tell the truth and watch them die?
The novel itself takes up 240 of the books 370 pages, with the last five parts dedicated to a history of voting, reverse engineering, cryptography, buffer overflows and steganography.
As a standalone novel, the book (while entertaining and enjoyably readable) is somewhat overpriced at $34.95, especially since the enclosed CD-ROM is freely downloadable and the plot is somewhat thin. The non-fiction final section, though, is quite informative and effectively complements the novel.
This novel does a good job of explaining how software can be cracked, and provides the reader with a good overview of security concepts such as buffer overflows, reverse engineering, cryptography, and more. It is hoped that the book will find itself in the hands of members of Congress and the FEC, who truly need to be educated in such fundamental security topics.
As a novel, The Mezonic Agenda will not compete with books from Tom Clancy or Robert Ludlum. But because insecure e-voting is one of the greatest threats to democracy today, it is a much needed title.
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