The Academy Awards are coming on Sunday and, given this quiet gambling season after the Super Bowl and before March Madness, it may be tempting to test your luck at placing some bets on what movie or actor will win at the Oscars.
I’m not saying not to enter your office pool. That’s fine and harmless. Toss in your $10, try to show off your movie savvy, win or lose and everyone’s had a good time.
But for god’s sake, do not “invest” in the odds available on sites that ought to stick to betting on sports.
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Just because Oscars betting is legal doesn’t mean it’s a good idea
It’s not that there’s any hanky-panky going on at the sportsbook level. The betting lines for “Everything Everywhere All At Once” to win Best Picture are set in the usual way – based on publicly available chatter, knowledge of historical trends, and the movement of the betting lines as folks put their money down. Since most everyone assumes the Michelle Yeoh flick is the prohibitive favorite, the payout is a sad -1100 right now.
This is in no way an indictment or critique of the casinos themselves, although they, too, should reconsider offering this option for real-money wagering. But just because something is legal or available doesn’t make it a good idea.
Here’s your problem as a bettor: We have no idea what sort of security or, more importantly, cybersecurity goes in the actual casting of votes and tallying of the outcomes. And from everything I’ve been told, the process for the big awards – Oscar, Emmy, Grammy, Golden Globe, SAG, Tony, BAFTA – are probably the least secure, most easily hackable voting systems that exist for something so prestigious or important.
OK, “important” is relative. And, in fact, that’s why nobody really cares that much that the Academy Awards can be hijacked. The safeguards and redundancies that are in place to secure voting in elections for public office or the systems that manage your bank accounts and credit cards don’t exist here because it just doesn’t matter as much whether “The Martha Mitchell Effect” wins the Best Documentary Short award.
From everything I’ve been able to gather, voters for the Oscars log into a password-protected account and cast their votes via the Internet. That’s it. There’s no second-factor verification, no paper trail, nothing else.
Betting on Oscar winners is a cybersecurity nightmare
I’ve been covering voting cybersecurity for more than a decade – long before the Make America Great Again crowd couldn’t bear the truth about how unpopular their candidates and ideas were and, thus, decided to impugn the system. I first took interest in 2012 after Hurricane Sandy displaced millions of people in New Jersey and so then-Gov. Chris Christie allowed registrars to accept absentee ballots by email. In a sense, it was the country’s first wide-scale, real-time experiment in online voting. My god, it was a mess.
Cybersecurity experts then and now say voting by the Internet is a lousy idea that could only be made truly secure by also making it extremely user-unfriendly. Allowing the Internet to touch votes in any way opens a Pandora’s Box of potential mischief, much of it undetectable, which is why having a paper trail and doing post-election audits are so important.
So suppose an Academy Award voter is, say, the producer of a movie. And suppose that movie is considered a reasonable contender to win, so an upset wouldn’t be that big a shock. When that person logged in to vote, they could very easily pass along a viral program that gives them remote access to the vote totals and the ability to change them.
It’s that easy to do. It’s the thing that keeps elections cybersecurity experts up at night and has launched a thousand MAGA conspiracy theories that have, in fact, been debunked in part by post-election audits.
Stay invested in the fun, not the winners
There won’t ever be a post-election audit that the public would be privy to for the Oscars. There probably isn’t even a legal process for a film that loses to challenge the results. You’d think the folks behind “La La Land,” a big-budget, big-star front runner from 2017, would have asked for one when it somehow lost to the lovely but small-bore “Moonlight” that year. Or, conversely, that time two years later when front-runners “Roma” and “Black Panther” lost to the big-studio crapfest called “Green Book.”
The motivation for some gaming of this process is easy to understand: An Oscar brings a measurable box office bump, often bonuses for certain principals involved, and a raised profile and prestige that can lead to financing of and casting in future projects. It’s in the first line of every winner’s obituary.
Nobody from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences responded to my request to discuss the voting technology in use and how it’s defended. But that’s OK, I know what they’d say. They’d offer some lip service to the idea that their cyber experts are on the case, blah blah blah. What they were never going to say is, “Oh, yeah, our system’s a sieve. Totes.” (An AMPAS spokesman called after this column published to say, predictably, they couldn’t comment.)
If AMPAS and Hollywood are OK with this status quo, that’s their business. But when you put your money on any outcome that is this easy to manipulate, you’re making a big mistake.
This isn’t sports, where you can watch the outcome unfold in real time under a set of accepted rules. It’s not bank accounts, which major financial corporations spend millions to protect (and still fail routinely, by the way) and accept the cost of reimbursing you when fraud occurs as the price of giving customers an illusion of security. It’s not even American politics, which has the whole world watching and a legal framework for challenges and double-checking results.
No. It’s an obviously porous, entirely opaque process. You may think you know what’s going to happen because you’re a big film and Oscars buff, you read every word by Scott Feinberg in The Hollywood Reporter, or listen to Richard Lawson and Katey Rich on Vanity Fair’s “Little Gold Men” podcast.
It’s still just a bad idea. Watch the show for the fun and fashion of it all. Watch to see how awkward it all is for Will Smith. Watch to see if anyone attempts to explain the ending of “Triangle of Sadness.” Watch for the pleasure of seeing a cartoon called “My Year of Dicks” win something.
Save your money. March Madness is just around the corner.