Handsets hold key to Vivendi vote 'piracy'

An investigation is underway after electronic votes at a general meeting of Vivendi Universal appear to have been stolen

An alleged episode of vote 'piracy' at the Vivendi Universal general meeting is to be investigated by the Tribunal de Commerce de Paris, the body that presides over corporate legal disputes in France.

The Tribunal authorised the investigation into the 'malfunctions' that occurred during the course of the general meeting held on 24 April, which was intended to gain the seal of approval for corporate investments urged by chief executive Jean-Marie Messier but the result has been overshadowed by claims of vote hijacking.

Vivendi Universal (VU) along with La Société Générale and Saint Govin, two of the institutional shareholders and supporters of Messier, complained of malfunctions in the electronic voting system at the meeting. According to the complaints their 'yes' votes had been found to have been counted as abstentions. VU management suspects a 'probable act of piracy' affecting the 4000 or so electronic handsets given out to shareholders for voting.

ZDNet has since learnt that VU initially held back from making the accusations until it rallied the support of shareholders for its action. According to the minutes of the tribunal five institutional investors (including Credit Agricole Asset Management, Groupe BNP Paribas, Pathé, Saint Govin, and La Société Générale) have complained about perceived irregularities, each stipulating that their 'yes' votes had been counted as abstentions. The tribunal's notes go on to specify that 27 disputed handsets have been handed in for independent investigation.

While interest focuses on the technical aspect of the alleged 'piracy', the plot has thickened because one of the protagonists, banking group BNP Paribas, has found itself in the awkward position of having a stake in Multi Media Animations (MMA), the company which supplied the electronic voting technology. BNP Paribas is also one of the shareholders whose 'yes' vote was transformed into an abstention.

Investigators hope they will be able to cast some light on the "probable piracy" initially referred to by a VU statement made on the 26 April. What is certain is that the 4000 handsets supplied that day, which sent their signal by radio to a central computer in the meeting room, were responsible for 20 percent of the vote. The rest of the votes were made by proxy.

The high frequency signals sent by the handsets can be easily intercepted, but it is still not clear whether the transmissions were encoded to protect against the potentially serious consequences of interference.

BNP Paribas declined to comment on the subject of MMA -- a company that has provided technology for number of key votes at well-known companies but which has no listed phone number, no mention in the directories of France Telecom, and an address in the Avenue Wagram proving to be one supplied by a services company. When contacted, a spokesperson at the service company said, "Sorry, the company has an address here, we take care of the mail, but there is no one here, no management, no offices --- it's just a post box really." MMA's founder, Marcel Merette, has yet to return ZDNet's calls.

One of the scenarios envisaged by VU management is that someone in the meeting room was able to use a handset to vote using the identities of others, thereby falsifying the vote.

To comply with French law the handsets in question can only transmit one of two frequencies --- 433 or 866MHz. According to one expert in radio security it would certainly be possible to hijack that signal, depending on the level of security implemented. The expert pointed out, however, that it is no mean feat to simultaneously pull together a number of votes and falsify them in real time using one handset. "Without even taking into account the security system that's already one hell of a job to pull off. To do that you'd need the kind of kit that your average radio fan just doesn't possess and that would imply prior preparation, not to say an inside job."

The results of the Tribunal de Commerce inquiry into the voting are due in six weeks.

Steve Shipside contributed to this article.

For a round-up of the latest tech business coverage, see the Business News Section.

Have your say instantly, and see what others have said. Go to the ZDNet news forum

Let the editors know what you think in the Mailroom.