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Russian Cyber Attacks Against US Voting Systems Wider Than First Thought

Cyber attacks upon electoral systems in the United States are wider than originally thought. The attacks occurred in at least 39 states. The Bloomberg report described online attacks in Illinois as an example:

"... investigators found evidence that cyber intruders tried to delete or alter voter data. The hackers accessed software designed to be used by poll workers on Election Day, and in at least one state accessed a campaign finance database. Details of the wave of attacks, in the summer and fall of 2016... In early July 2016, a contractor who works two or three days a week at the state board of elections detected unauthorized data leaving the network, according to Ken Menzel, general counsel for the Illinois board of elections. The hackers had gained access to the state’s voter database, which contained information such as names, dates of birth, genders, driver’s licenses and partial Social Security numbers on 15 million people, half of whom were active voters. As many as 90,000 records were ultimately compromised..."

Politicians have emphasized that the point of the disclosures isn't to embarrass any specific state, but to alert the public to past activities and to the ongoing threat. The Intercept reported:

"Russian military intelligence executed a cyberattack on at least one U.S. voting software supplier and sent spear-phishing emails to more than 100 local election officials just days before last November’s presidential election, according to a highly classified intelligence report obtained by The Intercept.

The top-secret National Security Agency document, which was provided anonymously to The Intercept and independently authenticated, analyzes intelligence very recently acquired by the agency about a months-long Russian intelligence cyber effort against elements of the U.S. election and voting infrastructure. The report, dated May 5, 2017, is the most detailed U.S. government account of Russian interference in the election that has yet come to light."

Spear-fishing is the tactic criminals use by sending malware-laden e-mail messages to targeted individuals, whose names and demographic details may have been collected from social networking sites and other sources. The spam e-mail uses those details to pretend to be valid e-mail from a coworker, business associate, or friend. When the target opens the e-mail attachment, their computer and network are often infected with malware to collect and transmit log-in credentials to the criminals; or to remotely take over the targets' computers (e.g., ransomware) and demand ransom payments. Stolen log-in credentials are how criminals steal consumers' money by breaking into online bank accounts.

The Intercept report explained how the elections systems hackers adopted this tactic:

"... the Russian plan was simple: pose as an e-voting vendor and trick local government employees into opening Microsoft Word documents invisibly tainted with potent malware that could give hackers full control over the infected computers. But in order to dupe the local officials, the hackers needed access to an election software vendor’s internal systems to put together a convincing disguise. So on August 24, 2016, the Russian hackers sent spoofed emails purporting to be from Google to employees of an unnamed U.S. election software company... The spear-phishing email contained a link directing the employees to a malicious, faux-Google website that would request their login credentials and then hand them over to the hackers. The NSA identified seven “potential victims” at the company. While malicious emails targeting three of the potential victims were rejected by an email server, at least one of the employee accounts was likely compromised, the agency concluded..."

Experts believe the voting equipment company targeted was VR Systems, based in Florida. Reportedly, it's electronic voting services and equipment are used in eight states. VR Systems posted online a Frequently Asked Questions document (adobe PDF) about the cyber attacks against elections systems:

"Recent reports indicate that cyber actors impersonated VR Systems and other elections companies. Cyber actors sent an email from a fake account to election officials in an unknown number of districts just days before the 2016 general election. The fraudulent email asked recipients to open an attachment, which would then infect their computer, providing a gateway for more mischief... Because the spear-phishing email did not originate from VR Systems, we do not know how many jurisdictions were potentially impacted. Many election offices report that they never received the email or it was caught by their spam filters before it could reach recipients. It is our understanding that all jurisdictions, including VR Systems customers, have been notified by law enforcement agencies if they were a target of this spear-phishing attack... In August, a small number of phishing emails were sent to VR Systems. These emails were captured by our security protocols and the threat was neutralized. No VR Systems employee’s email was compromised. This prevented the cyber actors from accessing a genuine VR Systems email account. As such, the cyber actors, as part of their late October spear-phishing attack, resorted to creating a fake account to use in that spear-phishing campaign."

It is good news that VR Systems protected its employees' e-mail accounts. Let's hope that those employees were equally diligent about protecting their personal e-mail accounts and home computers, networks, and phones. We all know employees that often work from home.

The Intercept report highlighted a fact about life on the internet, which all internet users should know: stolen log-in credentials are highly valued by criminals:

"Jake Williams, founder of computer security firm Rendition Infosec and formerly of the NSA’s Tailored Access Operations hacking team, said stolen logins can be even more dangerous than an infected computer. “I’ll take credentials most days over malware,” he said, since an employee’s login information can be used to penetrate “corporate VPNs, email, or cloud services,” allowing access to internal corporate data. The risk is particularly heightened given how common it is to use the same password for multiple services. Phishing, as the name implies, doesn’t require everyone to take the bait in order to be a success — though Williams stressed that hackers “never want just one” set of stolen credentials."

So, a word to the wise for all internet users: don't use the same log-in credentials at multiple site. Don't open e-mail attachments from strangers. If you weren't expecting an e-mail attachment from a coworker/friend/business associate, call them on the phone first and verify that they indeed sent an attachment to you. The internet has become a dangerous place.

Comments

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Chanson de Roland

And yet Congress not only fails to fund the hardening of our voting systems against cyber threats, it also halted and hasn't resumed the funding of installing voting machines that provide an auditable paper trail by either using the venerable yet effective paper ballots and high speed scanners or computerized systems that immediately print a paper copy of a ballot which a voter can inspect for accuracy and which, if accurate, the voter can then file with election officials so as to provide an auditable paper trail.

It is as if Congress wants it to be possible to steal our elections.

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