The Mezonic Agenda: Hacking the Presidency: Hack along with the heroes and villains as the American Presidency hangs in the balance of cyber-space... Paperback – Oct 7 2004
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Chad Davis is a computer researcher who is due to testify before Congress on an electronic voting system that he has been studying for security issues. He can't seem to find any issues until a cracker gives him an encrypted diskette of information damaging to the new system. But before Davis can get the story from the guy, he's murdered. Davis has to figure out how to crack the CD in order to learn what the hacker had discovered. Meanwhile, a powerful group of people are pushing for the usage of this system so that they can control the outcome of the election and dish out their own form of retribution for September 11th. This group will stop at nothing to accomplish their goals, and Davis' life is worth nothing if he doesn't play along.
This novel actually explains how software can be cracked, with decent explanations on buffer overflows and encryption. In fact, the book comes with a CD that you can use to practice your skills after reading the book. The person who can crack the CD can win a trip to a security conference in 2005. Pretty good practical application there! After the core story, there are appendices that explain the history of voting, encryption, buffer overflows, and stenography. I actually learned quite a bit about the history of voting from this information. And given the Florida fiasco of the 2000 election and the controversy over the use of Diebold voting machines with no audit trail, the general concepts in this book are extremely relevant to current events.
Is it an excellent novel? It's so-so... And the ending is rather abrupt for my liking. But if you haven't given much thought to the whole e-voting controversy, this book will give you a good foundation to be concerned.
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.
The poll workers, in their training on the machines had been shown a yellow button on the back of the machine (Reset). They were told repeatedly -- this button is your friend. The yellow button got pushed, it didn't do anything. A bunch of us computer types started to chuckle. The people from the voting machine company didn't think it was very funny.
While the voting machine people were powering down and restarting the machine, a county official got up to talk about bi-lingual voting. You have to have bi-lingual voting. And somewhere up the chain of command a decision was handed down that we had to make our machine bi-lingual. So far so good.
By census records, I guess, some power that existed somewhere their made the decision that the second language on our machines had to be Piute indian. Well OK. Then they went to get the ballots translated. The Piute indians don't have a written language, and is only spoken by a few elderly people. What do we do now? No bi-lingual and we violate the federal election rules. Will all the ballots here be thrown out because of this technicality? Can we do the bi-lingual in Spanish which would really help the Hispanic people or does Piute have to be it?
This book is a about the upcoming election. It's about 2/3 fiction. The story is about 250 pages long. The next third of the book is non-fiction, and is about the technology behind the novel. It has chapters on the history of voting, voting machines, cryptography, buffer overflows, and steganography. These aren't as bad as they sound as they are closely tied to the novel. The explanations are quite simple and clear.
Finally there is a CD-ROM in the book. The CD contains just three files. When successfully decrypted more files are revealed. Finally if you can hack the CD, you become elgible for a prize being offered by the publisher.
Oh yes, the novel. It's a mystery with a current theme. If all the voting is being done electronically, it might be possible the hack into the voting systems and hack the Presidency. The hero is speaking at a security conference and just after his speech he is handed a CD that ... well, I'll leave you to guess the rest.
In addition to the book there is a CD that includes a game competition to begin in 2005. Hidden within the book and the files on the CD is information that if correctly decrypted allows you to elect yourself president! This is a unique twist that has you directly applying the methods you learn in the book.
The Mezonic Agenda is a recommended read as good fiction, an educational book, and just plain fun. Pick up a copy and enjoy.
Well written and recommended reading.
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