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Hacker Eyed in Space Needle Contest

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

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The winning paint design for the roof of the Seattle Space Needle is "Trees," but fans of the competing "Deep Blue Sea" entry say the contest was fishy.

A computer hacker is reportedly suspected of manipulating the last-minute public vote in the design contest to repaint the roof of the landmark for its 50th anniversary.

A local television station, KIRO 7 TV, says it uncovered “strong evidence” that a computer hacker rigged the online voting system to bring home a win for the “Trees” design, by Seattle resident and graphics designer Nicole Commins.

Top This Contest Trees - Space Needle
The Space Needle

Owners of Seattle's Space Needle pitched artists and lovers of the 605-foot icon last year (left) to design a roof paint job for the icon's 50th birthday. Reports say the online system used to give the honor to "Trees" (right) was hacked.

Her evergreen tree design has adorned the sloped rooftop of the 605-foot tower since December 2012 and will remain on display until April 21 (the icon’s 51st birthday).

Sea over Trees

Contest organizers had narrowed the entries down to six designs and invited public voting via Space Needle's website.

Public voting for the Top Off Our 50th paint design contest lasted from Aug. 21 to Oct. 21. “For the first time, a fan of the Space Needle will see his or her design painted on the roof,” according to an earlier release from Space Needle LLC, the company that owns and operates the futuristic structure.

Citing multiple witnesses who were monitoring the online balloting, the “Deep Blue Sea” design by local artist Ryan “Henry” Ward was the contest's front runner by far with less than two days of voting left, the TV station reported.

Suddenly, however, “Trees” racked up about 10,000 votes, putting it in the lead by about 50 votes, the report said.

designs for voting
The Space Needle

Contest organizers narrowed the entries to six designs and invited public voting. Frontrunner "Deep Blue Sea" was felled by "Trees" at the 11th hour.

Black Eye, Blind Eye

In announcing Commins as the winner on Oct. 22, Space Needle said it received more than 100,000 votes in the contest.

However, “Deep Blue Sea” voting campaign organizers detected the voting disparity and informed contest officials that they suspected hacking activity. They said the contest officials ignored them.

“You don’t want to feel like you were in a crooked contest,” Chris Smith, a member of the "Deep Blue Sea” campaign told the television station. “I mean, that’s kind of a black eye for an iconic institution like the Space Needle.

“I really don't think the Space Needle had anything to do with the cheating that happened. They just turned a blind eye to it.”

'We Underestimated the Excitement'

In a statement, a Space Needle official said that “given the celebratory spirit of this competition with no financial incentive, we hoped that this event could be free from these incidences.”

“We underestimated the excitement, response and energy that some of them put into achieving results, however, when the final public voting was tallied, we had the sole discretion through the contest rules to declare a winner.

“We really do believe that all the finalists were winners in this contest, and appreciated the spirit, excitement and creativity that all the entrants brought to the contest.”

A ‘Pipedream’?

KIRO 7 TV reported that it found a person going by the handle “Pipedream” “bragging on The Stranger’s blog that he had the ability and desire to rig the contest, writing in part: ‘Their (the Space Needle’s) voting system is really poorly written. Their server-side script is vulnerable to [sic] SQL injection attack. Let’s see what other fun things I can do while at work today…’”

Felipe Micaroni Lalli / Wikimedia Commons

A local media outlet reported that a person going by the nickname "Pipedream" wrote in a blog about the ability and desire to rig the voting system.

The man behind the “Pipedream” name may have been a Seattle software development engineer who, according to his LinkedIn profile, works for Amazon, the report said.

Commins was not found to be connected to the alleged breach, according to the news outlet.

Federal, state and local law enforcement agencies told KIRO 7 that accessing the Space Needle’s servers without permission was illegal in most cases.

History: From Napkin to Reality

The tower, originally painted a retro “Galaxy Gold,” opened at the World’s Fair in 1962.

The Space Needle’s creation was the brainchild of Eddie Carlson, who doodled the famous structure on a placemat at a coffee house.

From inception to construction, the needle’s road was not an easy one. But the Howard S. Wright Construction Company built the tower, and the city has never been the same.

Now, the Space Needle is one of the top tourist destinations in the Pacific Northwest, with more than one million visitors each year.


Tagged categories: Color + Design; Competitions; Contests; Design; Monuments; Painters; Painting Contractors; Roof coatings

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