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Home » Hacking News » Politicians getting rid of private data? I don't beleive it!

Politicians getting rid of private data? I don't beleive it!

by Majik on August 11th, 2001 New operating systems were installed on three of four computer hard drives taken from the offices of Florida Secretary of State Katharine Harris, a central figure in the bitterly contested presidential election last year. As a result, data - including some public documents - almost certainly were destroyed.

What's not certain, sources involved in a multi-news-organization probe into the computers' contents say, is whether there is anything nefarious about changes made to computers used by Florida's chief election officer.

Minneapolis based data-recovery firm Ontrack was commissioned last week to copy and analyze data from Harris' office computers after she agreed to release them to a consortium of news agencies for public scrutiny. The effort was intended to help determine if several Republican operatives working in Harris' office during the election exerted improper political influence over key election decisions – especially Harris' decision to liberally interpret laws governing heavily Republican absentee ballots.

The news operations involved in the investigation include the New York Times, The Tampa Tribune, The St. Petersburg Times, The Miami Herald, The Orlando Sentinel, The South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Florida Times - Union, The Associated Press, Gannett Newspapers, Tallahassee Democrat, Palm Beach Post and Daytona Beach News-Journal. They received CD-ROMs containing the Harris computers' contents earlier this week.

The New York Times today reported that Ontrack found "bits and pieces" of hundreds of partially deleted files on the altered hard drives, but that the extent of damage could not be determined. The company also said there is no evidence the computers' data was systematically deleted to evade later scrutiny.

"If somebody did that, then it was a pretty poor attempt to cover their tracks," the Times quoted Mike Rands, manager of operations for Ontrack's DataTrail division, as saying.

Kristin Nimzer, an Ontrack legal consultant, told Newsbytes this afternoon that it is impossible to ascribe any motive to the installation of new operating systems on Harris' office PCs.

"We in general don't make any determinations for anyone's motives for doing certain things," Nimzer said. "There are numerous motivations that people may have – good, bad or otherwise – for doing all sort of things, including the installations for operating systems."

Nimzer confirmed reports that two of the computers in Harris' office had new operating systems installed in January, several weeks after George Bush was declared president following a controversial U.S. Supreme Court ruling, which undercut the remaining options open to Democratic candidate Al Gore. Another computer had a new operating system installed in March. A fourth computer also had an operating system installed in recent years, but well before the election, in November 1999.

"The statement given to us by the secretary of state was that the computers were reformatted for re-circulation among new employees," Nimzer said. There is no evidence that is not true, Nimzer said.

If journalists were seeking a smoking gun to tell them that Katherine Harris' office was a "war room" from which key decisions were made to stack the deck in Bush's favor, thus far they seem not to have succeeded. Harris was the honorary co-chair for Bush's election effort in Florida and has never been shy about her GOP partisanship.

Various reports say the data analysis did uncover the draft of a letter that comprised apparent talking points for a pro-Bush speech Harris was considering delivering. It contained phrases such as "I hope it will be 'W'" and other pro-Bush sentiments, but the document was created in January 2000, well before the election, according to Tampa Tribune reporter Joe Follick, who spoke with Newsbytes today.

Among other revelations in the data:

- Harris drafted election certification remarks hours before the deadline to finish election hand counts, according to the Fort Myers News-Press. The draft included a statement that hand counts were "unlawful," according to the Palm Beach Post, though they had been used in many elections in past years and were supported by numerous state Supreme Court opinions dating back nearly a century.

- The Palm Beach Post reported that Harris was registered to vote in two counties for nearly seven months before her aides discovered the gaffe and had it corrected.

- There is no direct evidence that political operatives using Harris' computers were influencing her decisions on controversial absentee ballots or on anything else. The computers do show that all four PCs were used almost daily between January and July 2000, and then were used very little until November and December. Each was used for at least several days during that span, and one was used frequently during the month of November.

- Harris may have violated state laws by using state-owned office equipment for partisan political purposes. However, reporter Follick, who said he has reviewed the law, said that to be found guilty of violating the rules there must be proof that corruption is involved.

"That's a high legal standard," Follick said. "These documents are here, but were they 'corruptly' put up there? That's a high legal hurdle to cross."

It is enough, however, for Florida Democrats to launch attacks against the secretary of state today. Many of them called today for her resignation.

For Follick, who has been among those scanning the data on the hard drives, the investigation has answered few questions, and raised many more.

"Were public records deleted? Yeah. But where do you go now? Were outside forces at work? Well, not more so than we already thought," Follick said. "It's one of those classic deals. Now we have more questions than ever. This thing doesn't really put anything to rest."

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