I’m about to head off to vote, but before I do, one additional thought on the election — and this one has almost nothing to do with helicopters.
This robocalling business? It’s going to get much, much worse. Frankly, I’m a little bit surprised that the NRCC is so obviously to blame for these sleazy tactics. The technology necessary to make automated calls is now within the grasp of any hobbyist:
- Download Asterisk (it’s free). Installation is pretty simple by opensource standards, but if it’s still too daunting, there are liveCDs available.
- Set up an outbound account with a cheap bulk-termination provider — this is what lets you turn internet traffic from your installation of Asterisk into actual phone calls on the public switched telephone network. Minimum buy-in for these services is usually around $15. Credit can be purchased with a VISA giftcard or, in many cases, with PayPal. I haven’t tried buying this sort of thing anonymously, but, having gone through the process legitimately several times, I don’t see what would stop you. Outbound calls cost around 1.3 cents/minute and turnaround on new accounts is usually instantaneous.
- Get some phone numbers to call. I’m sure there are databases you can buy, but you could also just randomly generate numbers with the right area code.
- Record a disenfranchising message. Maybe you warn that back taxes or delinquent parking tickets will be collected at the polling place. Or maybe you direct voters to a new, nonexistent polling place. It’s not hard — it just takes a little bit of imagination and a computer with a microphone.
- Write a dial plan that dials a number and plays your message. Write a script to autolaunch this dialplan over and over, working through your list of numbers. This takes a little bit of know-how, but is well within the reach of anyone who can get an A or a B in CS101. It’d take 20 lines of code, tops.
- Run your nefarious scheme. Using a purloined wifi connection might be tricky — you generally have to open up ports on the router to let the VoIP traffic go through properly. But if you drive around looking for access points named “linksys” you’ll probably be able to find a few with the default administrative password unchanged. Go in, open up the ports and you’re all set — you can run your robodialer from a laptop plugged into your car’s cigarette lighter.
It’s all pretty easy. And it’s only going to get easier over the next two years.
Now, consumer bandwidth isn’t up to NRCC levels of malfeasance. But you should at least be able to make a few dozen phone calls simultaneously over a broadband connection. And since these calls don’t have to be very long, you could easily chew through thousands of voters over the course of the time window when your tactic is likely to be both effective and immune to press coverage. Get a few wackos doing this and you might actually be able to affect turnout. For municipal elections it would probably be very easy to have an effect without getting caught.
So am I worried about this? Maybe a little. But there’s no going back, and the big boys are already misbehaving — I don’t particularly mind if the process gets democratized. I suspect that it’ll soon become common wisdom that you ought to ignore your phone during the week before an election. Sure, it’d be nice to see the FCC take action. But they’re awfully busy with indecency complaints, broadcast flags and bungled cableCARD/HDTV transitions. I’m afraid we’re going to have to muddle through this ourselves.