Monthly Archives: July 2016

How vulnerable to hacking is the US election cyber infrastructure?

Richard Forno, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

Voting stand and the notorious "butterfly ballot", from Palm Beach County from the disputed 2000 U.S. Presidential election. Photo: Infrogmation (Own work) [CC BY 2.5 ], via Wikimedia Commons

Voting stand and the notorious “butterfly ballot”, from Palm Beach County from the disputed 2000 U.S. Presidential election. Photo: Infrogmation (Own work) [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

Following the hack of Democratic National Committee emails and reports of a new cyberattack against the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, worries abound that foreign nations may be clandestinely involved in the 2016 American presidential campaign. Allegations swirl that Russia, under the direction of President Vladimir Putin, is secretly working to undermine the U.S. Democratic Party. The apparent logic is that a Donald Trump presidency would result in more pro-Russian policies. At the moment, the FBI is investigating, but no U.S. government agency has yet made a formal accusation.

The Republican nominee added unprecedented fuel to the fire by encouraging Russia to “find” and release Hillary Clinton’s missing emails from her time as secretary of state. Trump’s comments drew sharp rebuke from the media and politicians on all sides. Some suggested that by soliciting a foreign power to intervene in domestic politics, his musings bordered on criminality or treason. Trump backtracked, saying his comments were “sarcastic,” implying they’re not to be taken seriously.

Of course, the desire to interfere with another country’s internal political processes is nothing new. Global powers routinely monitor their adversaries and, when deemed necessary, will try to clandestinely undermine or influence foreign domestic politics to their own benefit. For example, the Soviet Union’s foreign intelligence service engaged in so-called “active measures” designed to influence Western opinion. Among other efforts, it spread conspiracy theories about government officials and fabricated documents intended to exploit the social tensions of the 1960s. Similarly, U.S. intelligence services have conducted their own secret activities against foreign political systems – perhaps most notably its repeated attempts to help overthrow pro-communist Fidel Castro in Cuba.

Although the Cold War is over, intelligence services around the world continue to monitor other countries’ domestic political situations. Today’s “influence operations” are generally subtle and strategic. Intelligence services clandestinely try to sway the “hearts and minds” of the target country’s population toward a certain political outcome.

What has changed, however, is the ability of individuals, governments, militaries and criminal or terrorist organizations to use internet-based tools – commonly called cyberweapons – not only to gather information but also to generate influence within a target group.

So what are some of the technical vulnerabilities faced by nations during political elections, and what’s really at stake when foreign powers meddle in domestic political processes?

Ohio citizens using electronic voting machines during the 2012 presidential election. Aaron Josefczyk/Reuters

Vulnerabilities at the electronic ballot box

The process of democratic voting requires a strong sense of trust – in the equipment, the process and the people involved.

One of the most obvious, direct ways to affect a country’s election is to interfere with the way citizens actually cast votes. As the United States (and other nations) embrace electronic voting, it must take steps to ensure the security – and more importantly, the trustworthiness – of the systems. Not doing so can endanger a nation’s domestic democratic will and create general political discord – a situation that can be exploited by an adversary for its own purposes.

As early as 1975, the U.S. government examined the idea of computerized voting, but electronic voting systems were not used until Georgia’s 2002 state elections. Other states have adopted the technology since then, although given ongoing fiscal constraints, those with aging or problematic electronic voting machines are returning to more traditional (and cheaper) paper-based ones.

New technology always comes with some glitches – even when it’s not being attacked. For example, during the 2004 general election, North Carolina’s Unilect e-voting machines “lost” 4,438 votes due to a system error.

But cybersecurity researchers focus on the kinds of problems that could be intentionally caused by bad actors. In 2006, Princeton computer science professor Ed Felten demonstrated how to install a self-propagating piece of vote-changing malware on Diebold e-voting systems in less than a minute. In 2011, technicians at the Argonne National Laboratory showed how to hack e-voting machines remotely and change voting data.

Voting officials recognize that these technologies are vulnerable. Following a 2007 study of her state’s electronic voting systems, Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer L. Brunner announced that

the computer-based voting systems in use in Ohio do not meet computer industry security standards and are susceptible to breaches of security that may jeopardize the integrity of the voting process.

As the first generation of voting machines ages, even maintenance and updating become an issue. A 2015 report found that electronic voting machines in 43 of 50 U.S. states are at least 10 years old – and that state election officials are unsure where the funding will come from to replace them.

A rigged (and murderous) voting machine on ‘The Simpsons’ satirized the issue in 2008.

Securing the machines and their data

In many cases, electronic voting depends on a distributed network, just like the electrical grid or municipal water system. Its spread-out nature means there are many points of potential vulnerability.

First, to be secure, the hardware “internals” of each voting machine must be made tamper-proof at the point of manufacture. Each individual machine’s software must remain tamper-proof and accountable, as must the vote data stored on it. (Some machines provide voters with a paper receipt of their votes, too.) When problems are discovered, the machines must be removed from service and fixed. Virginia did just this in 2015 once numerous glaring security vulnerabilities were discovered in its system.

Once votes are collected from individual machines, the compiled results must be transmitted from polling places to higher election offices for official consolidation, tabulation and final statewide reporting. So the network connections between locations must be tamper-proof and prevent interception or modification of the in-transit tallies. Likewise, state-level vote-tabulating systems must have trustworthy software that is both accountable and resistant to unauthorized data modification. Corrupting the integrity of data anywhere during this process, either intentionally or accidentally, can lead to botched election results.

However, technical vulnerabilities with the electoral process extend far beyond the voting machines at the “edge of the network.” Voter registration and administration systems operated by state and national governments are at risk too. Hacks here could affect voter rosters and citizen databases. Failing to secure these systems and records could result in fraudulent information in the voter database that may lead to improper (or illegal) voter registrations and potentially the casting of fraudulent votes.

And of course, underlying all this is human vulnerability: Anyone involved with e-voting technologies or procedures is susceptible to coercion or human error.

Voting machines in the warehouse before they are sent out to local precincts. Chris Keane/Reuters

How can we guard the systems?

The first line of defense in protecting electronic voting technologies and information is common sense. Applying the best practices of cybersecurity, data protection, information access and other objectively developed, responsibly implemented procedures makes it more difficult for adversaries to conduct cyber mischief. These are essential and must be practiced regularly.

Sure, it’s unlikely a single voting machine in a specific precinct in a specific polling place would be targeted by an overseas or criminal entity. But the security of each electronic voting machine is essential to ensuring not only free and fair elections but fostering citizen trust in such technologies and processes – think of the chaos around the infamous hanging chads during the contested 2000 Florida recount. Along these lines, in 2004, Nevada was the first state to mandate e-voting machines include a voter-verified paper trail to ensure public accountability for each vote cast.

Proactive examination and analysis of electronic voting machines and voter information systems are essential to ensuring free and fair elections and facilitating citizen trust in e-voting. Unfortunately, some voting machine manufacturers have invoked the controversial Digital Millennium Copyright Act to prohibit external researchers from assessing the security and trustworthiness of their systems.

However, a 2015 exception to the act authorizes security research into technologies otherwise protected by copyright laws. This means the security community can legally research, test, reverse-engineer and analyze such systems. Even more importantly, researchers now have the freedom to publish their findings without fear of being sued for copyright infringement. Their work is vital to identifying security vulnerabilities before they can be exploited in real-world elections.

Because of its benefits and conveniences, electronic voting may become the preferred mode for local and national elections. If so, officials must secure these systems and ensure they can provide trustworthy elections that support the democratic process. State-level election agencies must be given the financial resources to invest in up-to-date e-voting systems. They also must guarantee sufficient, proactive, ongoing and effective protections are in place to reduce the threat of not only operational glitches but intentional cyberattacks.

Democracies endure based not on the whims of a single ruler but the shared electoral responsibility of informed citizens who trust their government and its systems. That trust must not be broken by complacency, lack of resources or the intentional actions of a foreign power. As famed investor Warren Buffett once noted, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.”

In cyberspace, five minutes is an eternity.

The Conversation

Richard Forno, Senior Lecturer, Cybersecurity & Internet Researcher, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Court Rules NC Voter ID Law ‘Intentionally Discriminatory’

‘With surgical precision, North Carolina tried to eliminate voting practices disproportionately used by African-Americans’

By Nika Knight, staff writer for Common Dreams. Published 7-29-2016

A federal appeals court on Friday struck down North Carolina’s controversial voter ID law, ruling that the 2013 law was created “with discriminatory intent.”

Civil rights groups hailed the decision as a major victory.

“With surgical precision, North Carolina tried to eliminate voting practices disproportionately used by African-Americans. This ruling is a stinging rebuke of the state’s attempt to undermine African-American voter participation, which had surged over the last decade,” said Dale Ho, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) Voting Rights Project. “It is a major victory for North Carolina voters and for voting rights.” Continue reading

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The West’s Silence Is Deafening as Worst Nightmare Unfolds in Post-Coup Turkey

By Darius Shahtahmasebi. Published 7-28-2016 by The Anti-Media

Tayyip Erdogan, John Kerry and Barack Obama; Wales, 2014. Photo: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Tayyip Erdogan, John Kerry and Barack Obama; Wales, 2014. Photo: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The Turkish mission to weed out every possible element of dissent continues, with the government of Turkey reportedly dismissing close to 1,700 military personnel and shutting down 131 media outlets throughout the country.

Of the servicemen recently fired in Turkey, 149 were generals and admirals, meaning approximately 40 percent of all of generals and admirals in Turkey’s military are now without jobs. Continue reading

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Aspiring to Be a Mass Murderer? There’s a Scholarship for That

By Darius Shahtahmasebi. Published 7-27-2016 by The Anti-Media

Stephen Schwarzman. Photo: YouTube

Stephen Schwarzman. Photo: YouTube

Aspiring mass murderers will be happy to learn they no longer have to waste time on the child’s play that is firing into an open crowd at the risk of receiving a bullet to the head. One can now apply for a scholarship to China to learn from the experts themselves.

Well, kind of.

The Schwarzman Scholars Program is a new master’s program at Tsinghua University, China that seeks to “educate students about leadership and about China’s expanding role in the world.” Continue reading

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Worse Than Keystone XL? TransCanada’s Terrifying “Plan B”

“TransCanada’s Energy East proposal is truly Keystone XL on steroids,” says Natural Resources Defense Council

By Deirdre Fulton, staff writer for Common Dreams. Published 7-26-2016

Over the course of a single year, the NRDC states, tankers could carry 328 million barrels of tar sands oil down the East Coast—enough oil to fill more than 20,000 Olympic pools. (Photo: Andrew Priest/flickr/cc)

Over the course of a single year, the NRDC states, tankers could carry 328 million barrels of tar sands oil down the East Coast—enough oil to fill more than 20,000 Olympic pools. (Photo: Andrew Priest/flickr/cc)

The pipeline giant TransCanada, stymied in its attempt to drive Keystone XL through America’s heartland, is facing renewed opposition to its “new and equally misguided proposal” to build the Energy East pipeline across Canada and ship tar sands oil via tankers along the U.S. East Coast to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico.

In partnership with a number of Canadian and U.S. environmental groups, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)—a major player in the fight to defeat Keystone XL—on Tuesday released a new report outlining how Energy East would “effectively create a waterborne tar sands pipeline with hundreds of new oil tankers traversing the Atlantic coastline, making vast areas of the Eastern Seaboard vulnerable to a dangerous tar sands spill.” Continue reading

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Amid ‘Chilling’ Evidence of Torture, Post-Coup Purge Continues in Turkey

Amnesty International alleges widespread torture of detainees suspected of orchestrating coup

By Nika Knight, staff writer for Common Dreams. Published 7-25-2016

Photo: Humeyra Pamuk/Twitter

Photo via Twitter

Human rights advocates are sounding the alarm about Turkey’s crackdown on supposed dissidents, alleging widespread torture of detainees, while the government continues with its post-coup purges of private and public institutions.

On Sunday, rights group Amnesty International announced that it “has credible reports that Turkish police in Ankara and Istanbul are holding detainees in stress positions for up to 48 hours, denying them food, water and medical treatment, and verbally abusing and threatening them. In the worst cases some have been subjected to severe beatings and torture, including rape.” Continue reading

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Is internet freedom a tool for democracy or authoritarianism?

Elizabeth Stoycheff, Wayne State University and Erik C. Nisbet, The Ohio State University

Internet censorship by country.

Internet censorship by country.

The irony of internet freedom was on full display shortly after midnight July 16 in Turkey when President Erdogan used FaceTime and independent TV news to call for public resistance against the military coup that aimed to depose him.

In response, thousands of citizens took to the streets and aided the government in beating back the coup. The military plotters had taken over state TV. In this digital age they apparently didn’t realize television was no longer sufficient to ensure control over the message.

This story may appear like a triumphant example of the internet promoting democracy over authoritarianism.

Not so fast.

In recent years, President Erdogan and his Justice & Development (AKP) Party have become increasingly authoritarian. They have cracked down heavily on internet freedom. President Erdogan even once called social media “the worst menace to society.” And, ironically, restoration of these democratic freedoms was one of the stated motivations of the coup initiators.

This duality of the internet, as a tool to promote democracy or authoritarianism, or simultaneously both, is a complex puzzle.

The U.S. has made increasing internet access around the world a foreign policy priority. This policy was supported by both Secretaries of State John Kerry and Hillary Clinton.

The U.S. State Department has allocated tens of millions of dollars to promote internet freedom, primarily in the area of censorship circumvention. And just this month, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution declaring internet freedom a fundamental human right. The resolution condemns internet shutdowns by national governments, an act that has become increasingly common in variety of countries across the globe, including Turkey, Brazil, India and Uganda.

On the surface, this policy makes sense. The internet is an intuitive boon for democracy. It provides citizens around the world with greater freedom of expression, opportunities for civil society, education and political participation. And previous research, including our own, has been optimistic about the internet’s democratic potential.

However, this optimism is based on the assumption that citizens who gain internet access use it to expose themselves to new information, engage in political discussions, join social media groups that advocate for worthy causes and read news stories that change their outlook on the world.

And some do.

But others watch Netflix. They use the internet to post selfies to an intimate group of friends. They gain access to an infinite stream of music, movies and television shows. They spend hours playing video games.

However, our recent research shows that tuning out from politics and immersing oneself in online spectacle has political consequences for the health of democracy.

Two men talk in front of an internet cafe in Diyarbakir, Turkey. REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov

The power of distraction

Political use of the internet ranks very low globally, compared to other uses. Research has found that just 9 percent of internet users posted links to political news and only 10 percent posted their own thoughts about political or social issues. In contrast, almost three-quarters (72 percent) say they post about movies and music, and over half (54 percent) also say they post about sports online.

This inspired our study, which sought to show how the internet does not necessarily serve as democracy’s magical solution. Instead, its democratic potential is highly dependent on how citizens choose to use it.

The study was situated in two nondemocracies, Russia and Ukraine. The two share a common history, geography and culture. Both rank well above the global average of 48 percent of internet penetration. More than 70 percent of Russians and 60 percent of Ukrainians reportedly use the internet.

The results of our study revealed the internet’s double-edged sword. Citizens who used the internet for news and political information were more likely to express greater criticism about their country’s autocratic political institutions and leaders. As a consequence, they were more likely to demand greater democratic reforms.

But, when used differently, the internet can actually harm democratization efforts. Those who spent more of their online time engaging with entertainment content were more satisfied with living under autocratic conditions. These users were happy with the authoritarian elites who oversaw them and were uninspired by the prospects of greater freedom. In other words, online political use enhanced democratic attitudes, while online entertainment use entrenched authoritarian ones.

And it gets worse.

Tamping down political interest

It seems the world’s most shrewd authoritarian leaders have predicted these consequences. They have implemented policies that greatly restrict the internet’s political benefits while enabling a rich entertainment culture that carefully sidesteps political issues.

For example, since 2012, Russia has precipitously increased its censorship of political opposition websites and has recently engaged in consultations with Chinese censorship experts to curtail it even further. In China’s tightly controlled online environment, even entertainment content is carefully screened for subversive messages. Unsurprisingly, both Russia and China did not support the UNHRC human rights resolution guaranteeing citizens unfettered access to the internet.

However, censoring political content is only part of the authoritarian’s “online toolkit.” As we have discussed previously at The Conversation, authoritarian governments seek to create a “psychological firewall” that paints the internet as a scary world full of political threats. This rationale increases threat perceptions among the public. This, in turn, increases the public’s support for online political censorship. These threat perceptions also further motivate audiences to seek “safe” entertainment content rather than “risky” news and information.

When this approach proves unsuccessful, authoritarian regimes instead turn to even more overt scare tactics. Under President Erdogan, the Turkish government has created an aggressive program of legal, political and economic intimidation targeting not only journalists but also average citizens. As a consequence at least one-third of Turkish internet users are afraid to openly discuss politics online. This trend will likely only become worse as the Turkish government carries out its purge of political opponents in the wake of the failed coup.

The final component of the authoritarian toolkit is propaganda and disinformation. Such efforts limit the ability of citizens to separate truth from fiction, demobilize citizens and “undermine the self-organizing potential of society” to pursue democratic change.

The internet freedom advocacy challenge

Ensuring citizens have access to the internet is not sufficient to ensure democracy and human rights. In fact, internet access may negatively impact democracy if exploited for authoritarian gain.

The U.S. government, NGOs and other democracy advocates have invested a great deal of time and resources toward promoting internet access, fighting overt online censorship and creating circumvention technologies. Yet their success, at best, has been limited.

The reason is twofold. First, authoritarian governments have adapted their own strategies in response. Second, the “if we build it, they will come” philosophy underlying a great deal of internet freedom promotion doesn’t take into account basic human psychology in which entertainment choices are preferred over news and attitudes toward the internet determine its use, not the technology itself.

Allies in the internet freedom fight should realize that the locus of the fight has shifted. Greater efforts must be put toward tearing down “psychological firewalls,” building demand for internet freedom and influencing citizens to employ the internet’s democratic potential.

Doing so ensures that the democratic online toolkit is a match for the authoritarian one.

The Conversation

Elizabeth Stoycheff, Assistant Professor of Political Communication, Wayne State University and Erik C. Nisbet, Associate Professor of Communication, Political Science, and Environmental Policy and Faculty Associate with the Mershon Center for International Security Studies, The Ohio State University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Blue Lives Matter: Police Exceptionalism Leading America Toward Second Civil War

By Claire Bernish. Published 7-23-2016 by The Anti-Media

PORTLAND OREGON - NOV 17: Police in Riot Gear Holding the Line in Downtown Portland Oregon during a Occupy Portland protest on the first anniversary of Occupy Wall Street November 17 2011

PORTLAND OREGON – NOV 17: Police in Riot Gear Holding the Line in Downtown Portland Oregon during a Occupy Portland protest on the first anniversary of Occupy Wall Street November 17 2011

United States — Lurched back and forth in the ever-quickening spiral of an American empire circling the drain, we — as a people — have chosen battle lines on nearly every issue from politics to foreign policy, domestic surveillance to policing.

Thrust back into national focus, the last issue — policing in the U.S. — might even surpass in contention the ongoing race to the White House. And it stands to reason, with the world lashing out against failed globalism in its various nefarious incarnations — largely driven by American exceptionalist military presence nearly everywhere on the planet — the empire sees expediency in heading off a possible insurrection. Continue reading

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As Major Parties Embrace Fracking, Report Shows Natural Gas ‘Bridge to Climate Disaster’

‘Currently planned gas production expansion in Appalachia would make meeting U.S. climate goals impossible,’ says Oil Change International

By Deirdre Fulton, staff writer for Common Dreams. Published 7-22-2016

It is widely expected that production in the Appalachian Basin region will double over current levels by the early 2030s, leading to an inevitable "pipeline rush." (Photo: Oil Change International)

It is widely expected that production in the Appalachian Basin region will double over current levels by the early 2030s, leading to an inevitable “pipeline rush.” (Photo: Oil Change International)

As the Democratic Party comes under fire for not taking a strong enough stance on fracking, and Donald Trump considers drilling tycoon Harold Hamm for Energy Secretary in his hypothetical cabinet, a new report out Friday details how proposed natural gas expansion in the U.S. stands to undermine national climate goals as well as public and environmental health.

A Bridge Too Far: How Appalachian Basin Gas Pipeline Expansion Will Undermine U.S.Climate Goals (pdf), from Oil Change International (OCI) in partnership with 11 other organizations, “shows that current projections for U.S. natural gas production—fueled by a boom in the Appalachian basin—will lock in enough carbon to bust through agreed climate goals,” according to a press statement from OCI.  Continue reading

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With Arms in Air, Unarmed Black Caregiver Shot by Police

As long as I’ve got my hands up, they’re not going to shoot me, is what I was thinking. Wow, was I wrong.’

By Nika Knight, staff writer for Common Dreams. Published 7-21-2016

"All he has is a truck. A toy truck. I'm a behavior therapist at a group home," Charles Kinsey pleaded with officers, holding his arms in the air and trying to help an autistic patient before he was shot. (Screenshot)

“All he has is a truck. A toy truck. I’m a behavior therapist at a group home,” Charles Kinsey pleaded with officers, holding his arms in the air and trying to help an autistic patient before he was shot. (Screenshot)

Charles Kinsey, a black man and caregiver at a group home, was shot by police on Monday in North Miami, Florida.

Cell phone video footage released late Wednesday showed that Kinsey was lying on the ground, holding his arms in the air to show he was unarmed, and trying to help a distressed autistic patient in the moments before he was shot in the leg.

“As long as I’ve got my hands up, they’re not going to shoot me, is what I was thinking. Wow, was I wrong,”said Kinsey to local TV station WSVN from a hospital bed on Thursday. Continue reading

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