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Ethical hackers breach Vt. voting machines

Elections security experts have discovered new ways to manipulate the type of voting machine used in Vermont, but local elections officials say it’s unlikely that bad actors could exploit those vulnerabilities to change the results of an election.

At a recent technology conference in Las Vegas, ethical hackers from across the country tried to infiltrate some of the voting machines used in U.S. elections.

Probing for vulnerabilities in ballot tabulators is an annual tradition at the DEF CON Hacking Conference. This year, however, hackers tried to gain access to the same type of voting machine used by 135 towns in Vermont.

Montpelier City Clerk John Odum retrieved one of the machines from a vault last week and placed it on a desk in his office. It’s a pretty ancient-looking piece of technology — like something you might have seen in a middle school computer room in the early 1990s.

“As I understand it, the memory cards that we use, the technology was originally developed for the original Tandy laptops,” Odum said, “so this is some old stuff.”

The machine is called an AccuVote, and its name is clearly meant to inspire confidence in the results it spits out. But when white-hat hackers set to work on this tabulator at DEF CON earlier this month, they quickly found all kinds of ways to manipulate results.

“Say this thing has been running all day; it’s maybe collected, you know, 600 votes. I come up and I press these buttons, suddenly the memory card says we’re at zero,” Odum said, pointing to two black buttons underneath a locking mechanism he’d opened up.

Or, a would-be saboteur could run a so-called “ender card” through the AccuVote, to make the machine think the election was over. If that happened, Odum said, the tabulator would stop counting votes, even if there were several hours left for citizens to cast their ballots.

Odum, a certified ethical hacker himself, was one of the tech gurus in Vegas trying to compromise the very same machines he uses to administer elections in Montpelier. Despite all the vulnerabilities, Odum said there’s no need to panic.

“All of these things, if we’re doing everything right, are manageable,” Odum said.

In order to corrupt the vote count on an AccuVote machine, you’d need physical access to its mechanical innards; Odum said Vermont’s elections security protocols make the machines a pretty tough target to infiltrate.

Secretary of State Jim Condos agrees.

“Someone’s not going to be able to come up and try to plug into it or take a screwdriver and pop it open to get into the thing,” Condos said last week.

Even if someone managed to surreptitiously gain access to the AccuVote and alter the results, Condos said Vermont — unlike some states — has a surefire backstop against that particular type of election fraud.

“Vermont has a voter-marked paper ballot for every vote that’s cast,” Condos said. “Those votes, those ballots, are kept in a sealed bag in the town clerk’s office vault for 22 months before they’re destroyed.”

Odum said elections protocols would almost certainly set off the alarm bells needed to trigger a hand count if someone did compromise a voting machine. If someone zeroed out the vote count midway through the election, for instance, Odum said it would become apparent that something was amiss when the clerk cross-referenced the vote count against actual turnout.

“One of these procedures that we have is going to trigger that there’s something wrong,” Odum said, “so the worst-case scenario is we’d have to wait several more weeks before we get the final result.”

Still, Odum said elections officials need to understand where the vulnerabilities are in order to prevent someone from exploiting them. He said that’s why the sort of testing done at DEF CON this year needs to continue happening.

Odum said he plans to purchase his own AccuVote soon, so he can learn even more about how the machine works and whether there are other vulnerabilities yet to be discovered.

“And, you know, in a practical sense, we’ve got to do that,” Odum said. “We cannot be comfortable that we are secure if we don’t know the true boundaries of what security is.”

Condos said the “race” for elections security “doesn’t have a finish line” — and with a major presidential election coming up next year, he said Vermont needs to keep pace with whoever seeks to manipulate it.

Jpkuckens / Josh Kuckens / Staff Photo  

Ashley Pletcher, of Keystone Equine Entertainment, right, leads Byron Doyle, of Montpelier, during a Trick Riding lesson at Breckenridge Farm in Barre on Wednesday.

Annie McCleary
Herbalist McCleary remembered as 'a powerhouse of a woman' and a 'gem'

WOODBURY — The life of well-known herbalist Annie McCleary is being celebrated after she died from pancreatic cancer Tuesday morning.

McCleary was a key figure in the herbalist community in Vermont. She was 71.

Larken Bunce, executive director of the Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism, said McCleary ran a few important herbal businesses and created a community over many decades. For the past several years, McCleary was running the Wisdom of the Herbs School in Woodbury.

Bunce said McCleary was one of the first people in the state to sell tinctures — plant extracts — at local co-ops.

“She was one of our first local herbal businesses,” Bunce said.

She said McCleary’s teaching was foundational in getting people educated on and familiar with wild edibles. Bunce said McCleary taught people how to connect with the landscape.

While McCleary was known to herbalists outside the state, Bunce said she was committed to educating those living in Vermont about edible and medicinal plants. Bunce said education is important these days especially given the challenges seen in this economic climate.

“There’s a lack of access to health care for many people. Even if we have access to health care, there are some limitations in terms of wellness and preventive care in the system. Herbalism in general is very localized. … It’s very important so we can take care of ourselves and our communities, our neighbors. I think that’s a lot of what (McCleary) was about,” she said.

Bunce said McCleary was community-minded, thoughtful and loving while also being direct and keeping people honest.

“There’s a space in the community that she will always hold. And she’ll keep teaching us from where she is now,” Bunce said.

Shona R. MacDougall runs Earth Rhythm Herbal out of Middlesex. MacDougall said McCleary was a wonderful woman.

She said McCleary knew more about the local plants than anyone she’s ever met in the area.

“You could walk through the woods with her and she would identify every herb on every plant that you could see. Whether it had medicinal use or food use, or wasn’t known for those types of uses. She was just a powerhouse of a woman. A wonderful spiritual leader,” MacDougall said.

Besides focusing on the medicinal use and food use of plants, she said the spiritual aspect of herbalism was important to McCleary. She said that’s a part of herbalism that’s often missed today.

“Herbs come from a traditional background of healing and a lot of the traditions utilize spiritual energetic aspects of herbalism,” MacDougall said.

She said McCleary was a strong advocate for things she believed in, whether it directly impacted her or not.

“And we need people like that on the planet today. We need people to act in that fashion,” she said.

Jess Ann Rubin made a post on Facebook talking about McCleary’s death. The post, in which Rubin calls McCleary “a gem of a human being” has been shared 50 times as of Wednesday afternoon. She called McCleary a friend, mentor, teacher, elder and colleague.

“Last time I saw her, I felt as if I was in the presence of an earth queen, Queen of the fairies, ambassador of plants: elegant, wise, honoring sanctuary. Now we will prepare her body to place into the earth she so loved and tended over which in time we will plant a pollinator garden at her request,” Rubin wrote in part.



Council wonders what weather vane is worth

BARRE — As the Weather Vane Turns?

The cast of characters has changed with the exception of two — both now in new roles — but a once-popular City Council soap opera could be making a comeback thanks to fresh questions about the value of the antique weather vane that once graced the “drying tower” of the city’s former fire station.

Forged for $75 in 1903 the weather vane, which depicts a “flying” horse-drawn hook-and-ladder truck, was the subject of a couple of unsolicited offers more than a dozen years ago and has since been insured for $1.2 million.

In 2007 – months after a photograph of the handsome, hammered copper weather vane made the cover of the city’s annual report – a council, which then included City Manager Steve Mackenzie and City Clerk Carol Dawes, rejected a Connecticut auctioneer’s jaw-dropping offer to buy it for $950,000.

Mackenzie, who was absent due to illness Tuesday night, made the 12-year-old motion that was unanimously approved and Dawes was instrumental in helping craft the agreement that led to the valuable relic being placed on public display at the Vermont History Center later that year.

End of story?

It was until Tuesday night when councilors tabled action on what some viewed as a head-scratching proposal to engage an appraiser to assess the value of the weather vane they were told costs the city nearly $2,300 a year to insure.

In Mackenzie’s absence, Mayor Lucas Herring suggested there were two potential justifications to invest what councilors were told would be roughly $1,550 in an appraisal.

One, Herring said, would be to determine whether the weather vane is appropriately insured. The city, he said, could save money by insuring it for less.

That explanation didn’t fly far with Councilor John Steinman.

“Why are we doing this?” Steinman asked. “Couldn’t we just decide to insure it for a lesser amount and pay less annually? Why do we have to spend thousands of dollars to do that?”

Herring said there was another consideration.

“The second part of the question is do we sell it, do we donate it, do we keep it?” he said, ticking down the list of options an earlier council considered when an unsolicited offer of $500,000 received late in 2006 ballooned to $950,000 the following summer.

Steinman still wasn’t convinced.

“To do any of those things why do we have to pay (for an appraisal),” he said, before making the motion to do just that.

That motion was tabled, but not before councilors indicated they aren’t interested in selling the weather vane though some would entertain donating it to the Vermont Historical Society if only to shed the cost of insuring it.

Councilors Michael Boutin and Rich Morey are on that list and Councilor Jeffrey Tuper-Giles said he could be persuaded to join them.

“I am torn because it is city property and it does have some value,” Tuper-Giles said of the weather vane. “But, at the same time I know the Vermont History Center would be the best, safest place for this thing in perpetuity.”

Councilor Teddy Waszazak said he isn’t interested in selling the weather vane and doesn’t want to donate to the historical society either.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it and this isn’t broken to me,” Waszazak said, expressing his support for the current arrangement to have the weather vane on display at the Vermont History Center.

Waszazak said he wouldn’t be opposed to investing in appraisal, but first wanted to ascertain whether one had already been done.

At least one was, though city officials haven’t yet been able to locate it.

In 2007 Ronald Bourgeault of Northeast Auctions in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, pegged the value of the then-century-old weather vane at somewhere between $700,000 and $1.2 million.

Despite some minor “rusting” and “pitting” on the weather vane’s copper surface, Bourgeault indicated the unique antique was worth far more than the $500,000 the city had been offered when he conducted his cost-free appraisal at the time.

“… Based on the recent enthusiastic market for collecting rare American weather vanes, coupled with the recent price record set by Northeast Auctions for a steam locomotive tender weather vane sold in the August 2006 sale for $1,216,000, the fair market value range for this copper full-round detailed scale model hook-and-ladder weather vane is $700,000 to $1,200,000,” Bourgeault wrote in an appraisal then-mayor Thomas Lauzon shared with the council between unsolicited offers in 2007 and referenced in his update to the community that was published in that year’s annual report.

“… Last year the city received an offer to sell the weather vane for $500,000, which necessitated moving the weather vane to a secure location, out of hams way,” he wrote, adding: “A recent appraisal has placed the value as high as $1,200,000.”

At the time the council agreed to solicit a second opinion, but Lauzon said Wednesday that never happened. Instead, the city consulted with the historical society, reached an agreement to publicly display the weather vane at the Vermont History Center and insured it for $1.2 million.

The weather vane hasn’t traveled far since it was produced by Boston-based W.A. Snow & Co. for the former South Main Street fire station that was built for $24,000 in 1904.

It remained atop the fire station’s hose “drying tower” until 1983, when an unsolicited offer to buy it for $35,000 coupled with the theft of a similar weather vane in South Burlington prompted the council to order it be removed and stored at the Aldrich Public Library.

It remained at the library – sitting atop a book shelf for more than two decades and was restored with the $3,000 grant obtained by the library in 1993.

However, the 2006 offer prompted a decision to place the weather vane in a bank vault, though Lauzon recalled Wednesday it ended up at the Vermont History Center instead.

Lauzon said he was surprised to see the weather vane back on the council’s agenda, and remained opposed to selling what he views as a small, but important piece of Barre’s history.

“I don’t care if it’s worth $2 million, you don’t sell it,” he said.

That appears to be the view of the current council, though, Boutin said he would entertain donating it to the historical society with the stipulation that it remain on public display in Barre.

Morey agreed the council could explore that possibility and Dawes suggested members might want to review the current agreement the city has with the historical society, which has served as the custodian of the weather vane for the last 12 years.




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Alex Smith

The Hunger Mountain Co-op Brown Bag Summer Concert Series is Montpelier Alive’s series of free and fun lunch-time concerts. 12-1 p.m. City Hall Plaza, 39 Main St., Montpelier, director@montpelieralive.org, 802-223-9604.