Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Russian Hacking Effort Days Before 2016 Election

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 Intelligence Report.

The Report indicates that Russian Hacking may have penetrated further into U.S. Voting Systems than was previously understood. It states unequivocally in its Summary Statement that it was Russian Military Intelligence, specifically the Russian General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate, or GRU, that conducted the Cyber Attacks described in the document:

Russian General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate actors … executed cyber espionage operations against a named U.S. company in August 2016, evidently to obtain information on elections-related software and hardware solutions. … The actors likely used data obtained from that operation to … launch a voter registration-themed spear-phishing campaign targeting U.S. local government organizations.

The NSA analysis does not draw conclusions about whether the interference had any effect on the Election’s outcome and concedes that much remains unknown about the extent of the hackers’ accomplishments. However, the report raises the possibility that Russian hacking may have breached at least some elements of the Voting system, with disconcertingly uncertain results.

The report adds significant new detail to the picture that emerged from the unclassified Intelligence assessment about Russian Election meddling released by the Obama Administration in January. The January Assessment presented the U.S. Intelligence community’s conclusions but omitted many specifics, citing concerns about Disclosing Sensitive Sources and Methods. The Assessment concluded with high Confidence that the Kremlin ordered an extensive, multi-pronged propaganda effort “to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.”

The NSA has now learned, however, that Russian Government Hackers, part of a team with a “cyber espionage mandate specifically directed at U.S. and foreign elections,” focused on parts of the system directly connected to the Voter Registration process, including a Private Sector Manufacturer of Devices that maintain and verify the Voter Rolls. Some of the Company’s Devices are advertised as having Wireless Internet and Bluetooth connectivity, which could have provided an ideal staging point for further malicious actions.

The Spear-Phishing Attack

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 24th, 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. 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. The Report notes that it is “unknown whether the aforementioned spear-phishing deployment successfully compromised all the intended victims, and what potential data from the victim could have been exfiltrated.”

The Hackers apparently got what they needed. Two months later, on October 27th, they set up an “Operational” Gmail account designed to appear as if it belonged to an Employee at the Company, and used Documents obtained from the previous operation to launch a second Spear-Phishing operation “targeting U.S. local government organizations.” These emails contained a Microsoft Word document that had been “Trojanized” so that when it was opened it would send out a Beacon to the “malicious infrastructure” set up by the Hackers.

This phase of the Spear-Fishing operation was likely launched on either October 31th or November 1th and sent Spear-Fishing emails to 122 email addresses “associated with named local government organizations,” probably to officials “involved in the management of voter registration systems.” The emails contained Microsoft Word attachments purporting to be benign Documentation for Company's Voter Database product line, but which were in reality maliciously embedded with Automated Software Commands that are triggered instantly and invisibly when the User opens the Document. These particular weaponized files used PowerShell, a Microsoft Scripting language designed for System Administrators and installed by default on Windows computers, allowing vast Control over a System’s settings and functions. If opened, the files “very likely” would have instructed the infected Computer to begin Downloading in the Background a second Package of Malware from a Remote server also controlled by the Hackers, which could have provided Attackers with “persistent access” to the Computer or the Ability to “survey the victims for items of interest.” Essentially, the weaponized Word document quietly Unlocks and Opens a target’s back door, allowing virtually any cocktail of Malware to be subsequently delivered automatically.

If this type of Attack were successful, the perpetrator would possess “unlimited” capacity for siphoning away items of interest. “Once the user opens up that email attachment, the attacker has all the same capabilities that the user does.” Vikram Thakur, a Senior Research Manager at Symantec’s Security Response Team said that in cases like this the, “quantity of exfiltrated data is only limited by the controls put in place by network administrators.” Data theft of this variety is typically encrypted, meaning anyone observing an infected network wouldn’t be able to see what exactly was being removed but should certainly be able to tell something was afoot. Overall, the method is one of “medium sophistication, practically any hacker can pull off.”

At a December Press Conference, President Obama said that he told Russian President Vladimir Putin in September not to Hack the U.S. Election Infrastructure. “What I was concerned about in particular was making sure [the DNC hack] wasn’t compounded by potential hacking that could hamper vote counting, affect the actual election process itself,” Obama said. “So in early September, when I saw President Putin in China, I felt that the most effective way to ensure that that didn’t happen was to talk to him directly and tell him to cut it out and there were going to be serious consequences if he didn’t. And in fact we did not see further tampering of the election process.”

But the tampering continued. “The fact that this is occurring in October is troubling,” said one Senior Law Enforcement official with significant Cyber expertise. “In August 2016 warnings went out from the FBI and DHS to those agencies. This was not a surprise. This was not hard to defend against. But you needed a commitment of budget and attention.”

The NSA document briefly describes two other Election-related Russian Hacking operations. In one, Russian military Hackers created an email account pretending to be another U.S. election Company, referred to in the Document as U.S. Company 2, from which they sent Fake Test emails offering “election-related products and services.” The Agency was unable to determine whether there was any targeting using this account.

In a third Russian operation, the same group of Hackers sent test emails to addresses at the American Samoa Election Office, presumably to determine whether those Accounts existed before launching another Phishing attack. It is unclear what the effort achieved, but the NSA assessed that the Russians appeared intent on “mimicking a legitimate absentee ballot-related service provider.” The report does not indicate why the Russians targeted the tiny Pacific Islands, a U.S. Territory with no Electoral Votes to contribute to the Election.

Getting attention and a Budget Commitment to Election Security requires solving a Political riddle. “The problem we have is that voting security doesn’t matter until something happens, and then after something happens, there’s a group of people who don’t want the security, because whatever happened, happened in their favor,” said Bruce Schneier, a Cybersecurity Expert at Harvard’s Berkman Center who has written frequently about the security Vulnerabilities of U.S. Election systems. “That makes it a very hard security problem, unlike your bank account.” Schneier said the Attack, as described by the NSA, is standard hacking procedure. “Credential-stealing, spear-phishing — this is how it’s done,” he said. “Once you get a beachhead, then you try to figure out how to go elsewhere.”

Pamela Smith, President of Election Integrity Watchdog Verified Voting, agreed that even if the Company's Systems doesn’t facilitate the actual Casting of Votes, it could make an alluring target for anyone hoping to disrupt the Vote. “If someone has access to a state voter database, they can take malicious action by modifying or removing information,” she said. “This could affect whether someone has the ability to cast a regular ballot, or be required to cast a ‘provisional’ ballot — which would mean it has to be checked for their eligibility before it is included in the vote, and it may mean the voter has to jump through certain hoops such as proving their information to the election official before their eligibility is affirmed.”

Mark Graff, a Digital Security Consultant and former Chief Cybersecurity Officer at Lawrence Livermore National Lab, described such a hypothetical tactic as “effectively a denial of service attack” against would-be voters. But a more worrying prospect, according to Graff, is that Hackers would target a Company to get closer to the actual Tabulation of the Vote. An attempt to directly break into or alter the actual voting Machines would be more conspicuous and considerably riskier than compromising an adjacent, less visible part of the voting System, like voter Registration Databases, in the hope that one is networked to the other. The Company advertises the fact that its Computer Polling Station equipment line is connected to the Internet, and that on Election Day “a voter’s voting history is transmitted immediately to the county database” on a continuous basis. A computer Attack can thus spread quickly and invisibly through Networked components of a System like germs through a handshake.

According to Alex Halderman, Director of the University of Michigan Center for Computer Security and Society and an Electronic Voting Expert, one of the main concerns in the scenario described by the NSA document is the likelihood that the officials setting up the Electronic Poll Books are the same people doing the pre-programming of the Voting Machines. The actual Voting Machines aren’t going to be networked to something like the Company's Systems, but they do receive Manual Updates and Configuration from people at the Local or State level who could be responsible for both. If those were the people targeted by the GRU Malware, the implications are troubling. Usually at the County level there’s going to be some Company that does the Pre-Election programming of the Voting Machines,” Halderman said. “I would worry about whether an attacker who could compromise the poll book vendor might be able to use software updates that the vendor distributes to also infect the election management system that programs the voting machines themselves,” he added. “Once you do that, you can cause the voting machine to create fraudulent counts.”

According to Schneier, a major prize in breaching the Company's Systems would be the ability to gather enough information to effectively Execute Spoof attacks against Election Officials themselves. Coming with the imprimatur of the Election Board’s main Contractor, a Fake email looks that much more Authentic.

Such a Breach could also serve as its own base from which to launch Disruptions. One U.S. Intelligence official conceded that the Russian operation outlined by the NSA, Targeting Voter Registration Software, could potentially have disrupted Voting in the locations where the Company's Systems products were being used. And a compromised election Poll Book system can do more than cause Chaos on Election Day, said Halderman. “You could even do that preferentially in areas for voters that are likely to vote for a certain candidate and thereby have a partisan effect.”

Using this method to target a U.S. Presidential Election, the Russian approach faces a challenge in the Decentralized Federal Election system, where processes differ not merely State to State but often County to County. The Electoral College makes it difficult to predict where efforts should be concentrated. “Hacking an election is hard, not because of technology — that’s surprisingly easy — but it’s hard to know what’s going to be effective,” said Schneier. “If you look at the last few elections, 2000 was decided in Florida, 2004 in Ohio, the most recent election in a couple counties in Michigan and Pennsylvania, so deciding exactly where to hack is really hard to know.”

But if you received Internal Polling Information from one Candidate, you would know where Fake News, Fake Facebook posts to potential Voters in certain areas of a State, it could affect the final Vote Count in certain Counties to swing a Victory in that State.

But the System’s Decentralization is also a Vulnerability. There is no strong Central Government oversight of the Election Process or the Acquisition of voting Hardware or Software. Likewise, Voter Registration, maintenance of Voter Rolls, and Vote Counting lack any effective National Oversight. There is no single Authority with the responsibility for safeguarding Elections. Christian Hilland, a spokesperson for the Federal Election Commission (FEC), said, “the Federal Election Commission does not have jurisdiction over voting matters as well as software and hardware in connection with casting votes. You may want to check with the Election Assistance Commission (EAC).” Checking with the EAC is also less than confidence inspiring. The Commission was created in 2002 as the Congressional Reaction to the Vote-Counting debacle of 2000. The EAC notes online that it “is charged with serving as a national clearinghouse of information on election administration. EAC also accredits testing laboratories and certifies voting systems,” but it is a backwater Commission with no Real Authority. Clicking on the Link about Certifying Voting Systems and it leads you to a Dead Page. The Republican Congress is discussing merging the EAC into the FEC.

If there were a Central U.S. Election Authority, it might have launched an Investigation into what happened in Durham, North Carolina, on Election Day. The Registration System malfunctioned at a number of Polling locations, causing chaos and long lines, which triggered Election officials to switch to Paper Ballots and extend Voting later into the Evening.Durham’s Voter Rolls were run by the Company's Systems, the same Firm that was compromised by the Russian Hack.

Local officials said that a Hack was not the cause of the disruption. “The N.C. State Board of Elections did not experience any suspicious activity during the 2016 election outside of what this agency experiences at other times. Any potential risks or vulnerabilities are being monitored, and this agency works with the Department of Homeland Security and the N.C. Department of Information Technology to help mitigate any potential risks,” said Patrick Gannon, a spokesperson for the North Carolina board of elections.

George McCue, Deputy Director of the Durham County Board of Elections, also said that the Company's Systems’ software was not the issue. “There was some investigation there, essentially no evidence came out of it indicating there was any problem with the product,” he said. “It appears to be user errors at different points in the process, between the setup of the computers and the poll workers using them.”

Whatever the investigation into the Trump Campaign concludes, however, it pales in comparison to the threat posed to the Legitimacy of U.S. Elections if the Infrastructure itself can’t be secured. The NSA conclusion “demonstrates that countries are looking at specific tactics for election manipulation, and we need to be vigilant in defense,” said Schneier. “Elections do two things: one choose the winner, and two, they convince the loser. To the extent the elections are vulnerable to hacking, we risk the legitimacy of the voting process, even if there is no actual hacking at the time.”

Throughout history, the Transfer of Power has been the moment of greatest Weakness for Societies, leading to untold bloodshed. The Peaceful transfer of Power is one of the greatest innovations of Democracy. It’s not just that an Election has to be fair, it has to be demonstrably fair, so that the loser says, ‘Yep, I lost fair and square.’ If you can’t do that, they’ll tear themselves apart if they’re convinced it’s not accurate.

NYC Wins When Everyone Can Vote! Michael H. Drucker
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