Wordgate: Is Minnesota Sen. Rod Grams Running a Cyber-Dirty-Tricks Campaign?

Tracking politics as it's practiced on the Web.
July 21 2000 9:30 PM

Wordgate: Is Minnesota Sen. Rod Grams Running a Cyber-Dirty-Tricks Campaign?

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Slate, the Industry Standard, and washingtonpost.com join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000.

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It is possible that Grams' troops themselves are victims of subterfuge, perhaps a feint by one of Ciresi's primary competitors. A sophisticated user could have altered Word to finger Cooper and the other Grams staffers. Word establishes an author identity when you install the software. The program automatically places your name in a document when you create it, but you can easily change that by typing over the information in the Statistics tab. The "Last saved by" identifier can't be altered within the document, but a moderately savvy scammer could have installed Word as "Terry COOPER," edited the Ciresi documents, and faked political paternity.

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Off the record, however, even Republicans admit that the Grams campaign is probably guilty of the scam, not the victim of a clever hacker. Lindberg should be able to resolve the ambiguity. David Erickson, a DFLer who runs MN-Politics.com, says he has found a Globally Unique Identifier (GUID) in one of the Word files. GUIDs, unique to each computer, got Microsoft into trouble last year when it was discovered that Windows' registration engine transmitted the 32-digit number to company servers. Word also implants the GUID in documents. Thus, records in Redmond may be able to identify the owner of the Microsoft Word program that created the documents. Microsoft's PR firm could not produce a spokesperson who could say if the information exists, or whether such information would be released to prosecutor Lindberg.

Lindberg's investigators should be able to determine who Stevens is. She used a fairly straightforward Hotmail address (kylomb@hotmail.com). Hotmail's terms of service clearly allow prosecutors to examine registration and use records. Even if she faked her Hotmail registration information, Hotmail's server records should be able to determine her Internet service provider, and her Internet service provider's records should be able to finger her identity.

Lindberg won't predict when his investigation will wrap, because he has never conducted a cybercampaign probe before. (The case has moved to the top of his pile, though; Minnesota's populist campaign law prescribes criminal penalties for prosecutors who don't investigate promptly.) Ciresi, bunched with his three top rivals in pre-primary polls, has dominated headlines because of the scandal, though perhaps not with the message he would have chosen. Grams—whose favorability rating is less than 40 percent and whose senatorial profile is so low one-third of Minnesotans still have no opinion of him—risks being indelibly stained.

David Brauer is a Minnesota-based free-lancer whose work appears in Newsweek, the Chicago Tribune, and the American Lawyer.

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