November 18, 2008
Last week, a scheme by Montreal Canadiens fans to flood the NHL All-Star Game ballot box with artificial votes was uncovered, in which a computer script inflated vote totals for Alexei Kovalev, Saku Koivu, Alex Tanguay, Andrei Markov, Mike Komisarek and Carey Price.
Over the weekend, and under the radar, the NHL took some action against these robo-votes, according to Dave Stubbs of Habs Inside/Out:
Late last week, the NHL said it was studying the legitimacy of this Habs runaway, the rules stating that automated voting activity is prohibited. Saturday into yesterday morning, it stripped thousands of votes from the Canadiens, as many as 20,000 from Kovalev alone if you're to believe the "real-time" totals.
But even after that action was taken, the Habtastic Five are still the only players that are over 200,000 votes in the all-star balloting. Is the voting still compromised? What fail-safes are in place to prevent further voter fraud, and why weren't they in place to begin with? Is this season's all-star game starting lineup destined to be seen as illegitimate?
We have some answers to those questions; including a few directly from the NHL, which spoke to us about the all-star voter fraud issue yesterday.
First off, the NHL confirmed that votes created by auto-voting programs have been eliminated from the totals. According to the League, every vote you see for each player has been cast by a real person.
Which obviously begs the question: Why are the Montreal totals still so disproportionately high?
Keep this in mind: The voting began on Nov. 12. The night before, the Canadiens had a home game against the Ottawa Senators. By all accounts, the team heavily promoted the all-star voting during that game, and the passionate Habs fans hit the ground running during the next 24 hours.
Now, there is something to be said for the dedication of Montreal fans here. The all-star game is in Montreal this coming January, so there is some extra motivation here. As one source reminded us, please recall the 1982 Major League Baseball All-Star Game that was played in Montreal -- the first time the midsummer classic left the United States -- in which Expos players Gary Carter, Andre Dawson and Tim Raines were all voted in by the fans.
Unfortunately in 2008, some of that Montreal fan passion manifested itself in illegal ways, as Montreal fans embraced robo-voting programs that quickly juiced vote totals for their starters. TSN covered the Canadiens' voting surge on Nov. 13, without noting any potential voter fraud. According to sources, the NHL realized there was automated voting occurring less than 24 hours after voting started.
Respect must be given for the League's swift response: Indentifying the nefarious voting schemes, isolating those votes from the legitimate ones in order not to disenfranchise fans and finding ways to block those programs -- all within the span of about two days.
Action was swift, because these votes were in clear violation of the League's published rules for voting:
13. How many times can I vote?
You can vote as many times as you like via the internet or text message during the Promotion Period (as defined in #3 above). However, the NHL will have in place monitoring procedures designed to prevent individuals from unfairly influencing the outcome of the voting by generating significant blocks of votes using technical enhancements. The NHL reserves the right to disqualify, block or remove any votes from any individual who votes by any electronic, mechanical or automated means, or otherwise tampers with the vote process, or for any other reason that would have the effect of unfairly influencing the outcome of the voting process, as determined by the NHL in their sole discretion.
14. Can people use automatic voting methods or unfairly influence the outcome?
Use of automatic voting methods is prohibited. The NHL will have in place monitoring procedures designed to prevent individuals from unfairly influencing the outcome of the voting by generating significant blocks of votes using technical enhancements. The NHL reserves the right to disqualify, block or remove any votes from any individual who votes by any electronic, mechanical or automated means, or otherwise tampers with the vote process, or for any other reason that would have the effect of unfairly influencing the outcome of the voting process, as determined by the NHL in their sole discretion.
The NHL's primary solution was through CAPTCHA technology:
CAPTCHA (Completely Automated Turing Test To Tell Computers and Humans Apart) is a program that protects websites against bots by generating and grading tests that humans can pass but current computer programs cannot. For example, humans can read distorted text as the one shown below, but current computer programs can't.
This sort of technology is used everywhere from Ticketmaster to blog comments sections to prevent SPAM or fraud or any other unwanted intrusion from automated systems. For the NHL All-Star balloting, it adds another layer of user input that all but eliminates the threat of automated votes. (Or so the League assumes.)
So why wasn't CAPTCHA added to the voting site to begin with; especially after the Vote for Rory campaign two years ago, whose questionable tactics were a catalyst for the NHL's new "real time" voting Web site this season?
The NHL told us that it wanted to ensure the most "user-friendly experience" possible, and that the CAPTCHA technology -- while effective -- doesn't have good consumer feedback; the League's own research showed that it was a drag on building good traffic for the all-star site.
That said, the developers of the NHL voting site felt that it was fraud-proof enough to forego the codeword technology. That is, until Montreal fans found a way around their security measures. The League remains vigilant, ready to act quickly again if there's another instance of auto-voting.
But to reiterate: Even if you believe Andrei Markov can't possibly have more legal votes (253,997) than Mike Green, Zdeno Chara and Teppo Numminen combined, the NHL has certified these current election results as legitimate. Its concerns about the All-Star Game starting lineup being somehow "tainted" are over, at least for now.
Which, of course, puts the onus back on NHL fans to right the perceived wrong here. It's going to take Pittsburgh Penguins fans stuffing the ballot box for Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, or Buffalo Sabres and Boston Bruins fans playing a remarkable game of catch-up to overtake Jesus Price.
Say what you will about the NHL's approach to its fans, but know this: From leaving certain names off an electronic ballot in order to generate grassroots efforts, to now inspiring voters to fight back against fraud with their mouse clicks, it has turned selecting starters for an exhibition game into one of the most effective publicity campaigns of the season.