The Mirai Botnet Architects Are Now Actually Fighting Crime Because Of The FBI

The three college-age defendants behind the creation for the Mirai botnet—an online tool that wreaked destruction across the internet in the fall of 2016 with unprecedentedly powerful distributed denial of service attacks—will stand in a Alaska courtroom Tuesday and ask for novel ruling from a federal judge: They hope to be sentenced to exert effort for the FBI.

Josiah White, Paras Jha, and Dalton Norman, who had been all between 18 and 20 years old if they built and established Mirai, pleaded accountable last December to making the spyware that hijacked thousands and thousands of Web of Things products, uniting them as being a electronic military that started in an effort to attack competing Minecraft gaming hosts, and evolved into an online tsunami of nefarious traffic that knocked whole web hosting companies offline. At that time, the attacks raised fears amid the presidential election targeted online by Russia that the unknown adversary ended up being getting ready to lay waste on internet.

The first creators, panicking as they recognized their innovation ended up being stronger than they’d imagined, released the code—a common tactic by hackers to make sure that if when authorities catch them, they don’t have any rule that’sn’t already publicly known that can help finger them because the inventors. That launch subsequently induce attacks by others through the fall, including one which made much of the web unusable the East Coast of this usa for an October Friday.

In accordance with documents filed prior to Tuesday’s appearance, the US government is suggesting that every of this trio be sentenced to 5 years probation, and 2,500 hours of community solution.

The twist, though, is precisely how the government hopes the 3 will provide their time: “Furthermore, the usa asks the Court, upon concurrence from Probation, to determine community service to add continued make use of the FBI on cyber crime and cybersecurity things,” the sentencing memorandum says.

The trio have added to a dozen or higher different law enforcement and security research efforts.

In a separate eight-page document, the federal government lays out how throughout the 1 . 5 years considering that the FBI first made connection with the trio, they have worked extensively behind the scenes with the agency and wider cybersecurity community to put their higher level computer skills to non-criminal uses. “Prior to being charged, the defendants have engaged in substantial, exemplary cooperation with all the usa national,” prosecutors wrote, saying that their cooperation had been “noteworthy both in its scale as well as its impact.”

Since it turns out, the trio have contributed to a dozen or maybe more different police and protection research efforts across the country and, certainly, around the world. They helped personal sector scientists chase whatever they believed was a nation-state “Advanced Persistent Threat” hacking team in a single instance, plus in another caused the FBI before final year’s Christmas vacation to help mitigate an onslaught of DDoS assaults. The court documents additionally hint that the trio have been engaged in undercover work both on line and offline, including traveling to “surreptitiously record those activities of known investigative subjects,” and also at one point working together with a foreign police force agency to “ensur[e] confirmed target had been earnestly employing a computer during the execution of a real search.”

The federal government estimates your trio have collectively logged above 1,000 hours of help, the same as a half-a-year of full-time employment.

Early in the day this season, the Mirai defendants caused FBI agents in Alaska to counter a fresh evolution of DDoS, called Memcache, which relies on a genuine internet protocol aimed at speeding up internet sites to alternatively overload them with repeated inquiries. The obscure protocol was susceptible, in part, because many such servers lacked authentication controls, making them available to punishment.

The Mirai documents outline how Dalton, Jha, and White jumped into action in March once the attacks propagated on the web, working alongside the FBI as well as the safety industry to identify susceptible servers. The FBI then contacted affected organizations and vendors to greatly help mitigate the assaults. “Due to the rapid work regarding the defendants, the size and frequency of Memcache DDoS assaults had been quickly reduced in a way that in just a matter of weeks, assaults utilizing Memcache were functionally worthless and delivering attack volumes that were simple fractions associated with initial size,” prosecutors report.

Intriguingly, though, the trio’s government cooperation hasn’t been limited by simply DDoS work. Prosecutors outline considerable original coding work they’ve done, including a cryptocurrency program they built that enables detectives to easier locate cryptocurrency while the associated “private tips” in a number of currencies. Details about the program were scarce in court documents, but according to the prosecutors’ report, the program inputs various information through the blockchains behind cryptocurrencies, and translates it in to a graphical software to aid investigators analyze dubious on the web wallets. “This system together with features devised by defendants can reduce the time needed by Law Enforcement to do initial cryptocurrency analysis because the system automatically determines a course for a offered wallet,” prosecutors report.

Based on sources knowledgeable about the actual situation, the Mirai research presented an original opportunity to intercede with young defendants who’d demonstrated a uniquely strong aptitude with computers, pressing them far from a life of criminal activity online and alternatively towards legitimate employment inside computer protection industry.

The federal government cites the general immaturity of this trio in its sentencing recommendations, noting “the divide between their on the web personas, in which these people were significant, well-known, and malicious actors into the DDoS criminal milieu and their comparatively mundane ‘real lives’ in which they current as socially immature teenage boys coping with their moms and dads in general obscurity.” None of them was in fact previously charged with a criminal activity, and government notes how all three had made efforts at “positive professional and educational development with varying levels of success.” Due to the fact federal government says, “Indeed it had been their collective insufficient success in those industries that supplied a few of the motive to take part in the unlawful conduct at problem right here.”

Writing in a separate sentencing memo, the attorney for Josiah White, who was house schooled and obtained his highschool diploma from the Pennsylvania Cyber class the entire year he and his cohorts established Mirai, explains, “he’s taken a blunder and lapse in judgment, and turned it as a huge advantage for the government, plus learning experience for himself.”

Given that the Mirai creators have been caught, the us government hopes to redirect them up to a more productive life path—beginning using the 2,500 hours of work in the years ahead alongside FBI agents, security scientists, and engineers. As prosecutors write, “All three have actually significant employment and educational leads should they decide to benefit from them instead of continuing to take part in unlawful task.” That would total higher than a year’s worth of full-time work with the FBI, distribute, presumably, over the course of their five-year probation.

Particularly, the documents indicate ongoing work by the trio on other DDoS instances, saying that the FBI’s Anchorage office continues work “investigat[ing] numerous groups responsible for large-scale DDoS assaults and seeks to continue to utilize defendants.”

The tiny FBI’s Anchorage cyber squad has emerged lately while the United States government’s main botnet attack force; just last week, the squad supervisor, William Walton, was in Washington to just accept the FBI Director’s Award, one of many bureau’s finest honors, for his team’s work with the Mirai situation. That same week, the creator of Kelihos botnet, a Russian hacker called Peter Levashov, pleaded accountable in a Connecticut courtroom in a different case, worked jointly by the FBI’s Anchorage squad and its own brand new Haven cyber device. According to documents, the Mirai defendants additionally contributed if so, helping design computer scripts that identified Kelihos victims after the FBI’s shock takeover of the botnet and arrest of Levashov in Spain last April.

The Mirai investigation presented a distinctive possibility to intercede with young defendants who had demonstrated a uniquely strong aptitude with computer systems.

The Mirai research, which includes been led by FBI instance agents Elliott Peterson and Doug Klein, has interesting echoes of some other Peterson instance: In 2014, the representative led the indictment of Evgeny Bogachev, now one of many FBI’s most-wanted cybercriminals, who allegedly perpetrated massive on the web economic fraud linked with the GameOver Zeus botnet. If so, detectives identified Bogachev—who lived in Anapa, Russia, near Sochi, regarding Ebony Sea coast—as the advanced force behind multiple iterations of the pernicious and dominant bit of spyware known as Zeus, which developed to become the electronic underground’s malware of preference. Consider it because the Microsoft workplace of on the web fraudulence. The FBI had chased Bogachev consistently, in multiple cases, as he built increasingly advanced level variations. Midway through pursuit of GameOver Zeus in 2014, detectives realized that Bogachev had been cooperating with Russia’s cleverness solutions to turn the effectiveness of the GameOver Zeus botnet towards cleverness gathering, utilizing it to plumb contaminated computer systems for categorized information and government secrets in countries like Turkey, Ukraine, and Georgia.

The GameOver Zeus case had been one of many earliest types of a now-common trend by which Russian crooks cooperate along with its intelligence officers. In an identical instance, released last year, the US government outlined how a well-known Russian unlawful hacker, Alexsey Belan, worked with two officers Russian intelligence solutions to hack Yahoo. The blurring of lines between online criminals and Russian cleverness is a huge main factor in the nation’s emergence as an increasingly rogue state on the web, of late responsible for introducing the devastating NotPetya ransomware attack.

In that Alaska courtroom Tuesday, the FBI will offer a counternarrative, demonstrating the way the US federal government approaches similar problem: It, too, will cheerfully harness the expertise of unlawful hackers caught within its borders. But it first forces them to quit their criminal task, then turns their computer savvy towards preserving the health together with safety for the global internet.

Garrett M. Graff is just a contributing editor for WIRED and writer of The Threat Matrix: Inside Robert Mueller’s FBI. They can be reached at garrett.graff@gmail.com.


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Facial Recognition, a British Airways Hack, and More Security News This Week

Tech went to Washington this week, and their biggest problems followed them.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg faced Congress, and though Google CEO Larry Paige was invited, he declined to make the trip—a move that didn’t ingratiate him with Congressional watchdog Mark Warner. One uninvited guest did make an appearance at the hearings, however: Alex Jones. He heckled Dorsey and a CNN reporter, and was captured by a photographer’s lens for what is one of the most perfect (and surreal) photos of 2018. Though Jones’ DC antics were mild compared with his past bad behavior, being that physically close to his trolling seems to have finally woken up Dorsey; Twitter permanently banned Jones the next day.

In other Washington news, Jon Kyl heads to DC to take John McCain’s Arizona senate seat. Kyl is of particular interest to people in Silicon Valley, as he’s the person Facebook appointed to investigate allegations of its bias against conservatives. And the Department of Justice officially charged a North Korean with hacking Sony Pictures in 2014, and also names him as participating in both the WannaCry ransomware scare and a 2016 Bangladesh Bank heist.

In other Google news, the company celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Chrome browser, and announced its plans to kill the URL. Apple, also missing in Washington, was busy this week looking into reports that one of the most popular apps in its Mac App Store acts like spyware. The company pulled the app after WIRED and others reported on its shady data collection.

Plus, there’s more. As always, we’ve rounded up all the news we didn’t break or cover in depth this week. Click on the headlines to read the full stories. And stay safe out there.

NYPD and IBM Built a Skin-Tone Recognition Algorithm for CCTV Footage

An object-recognition software IBM developed for use in self-driving cars morphed into a security surveillance tool in recent years. The Intercept reports that, according to documents and interviews with former IBM engineers, the NYPD gave IBM video and images from CCTV cameras placed all around New York City, enabling the tech company to refine image recognition search by facial features, including skin tone and body type. The NYPD began using the technology in 2010. In 2016 or early 2017, IBM reportedly upgraded the NYPD’s algorithm to explicitly search for people by ethnicity. The Intercept reports the software is also being used by a university in California. Civil rights advocates call the report alarming.

Malicious British Airways Breach Exposed 380,000 Credit Cards

Anyone who booked a British Airways flight using the airline’s website or app from August 21 to September 5 had their financial details compromised, BA revealed Thursday. Though personal data was taken, CEO Alex Cruz said the hackers got no passport or travel details. The airline says it will compensate customers for any financial loss resulting from the breach, which it is still investigating.

Google Emails Customers Under FBI Investigation

Motherboard reports that dozens of people reportedly got a very disquieting email from Google recently, telling them they were part of a secret FBI investigation. The email told customers that the FBI had contacted the search giant asking for access to their customer data on them, and that Google had complied. The notices seem related to an investigation into the LuminosityLink, a hacking tool whose creator pled guilty last year to distributing to hundreds of people. Some of those people claiming to have received the email from Google had apparently also purchased the LuminosityLink.

Google Hasn’t Solved its Russian Ad Problem

Charlie Warzel at Buzzfeed News reports that for just $35, a group of researchers impersonating Russian trolls were able to buy ads on Google. This might not be surprising, but it shouldn’t have happened, considering Google has sworn to secure its platform against foreign meddlers. The ads were “racially and politically divisive” and were made to look like they came directly from a Russian troll farm. Yet, Google sent them out to thousands of Americans on major news sites, proving that Google’s current safeguards against such material are not up to the job. If Google had shown up to testify in DC to week, politicians would certainly have asked about this failure.

Beware Sketchy Fake Army Websites

Army.com sounds like a legit government URL, but according to a Federal Trade Commission, it was a scam site that took potential recruit’s information and sold it to for-profit universities. It wasn’t the only one. The FTC took down nine such sites, targeting the private information of military hopefuls, and filed suit against the two Alabama-based companies running the sites, which the FTC allege made $11 million of the scam, which had been running, it seems, since 2010.


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The Fight Over California’s Privacy Bill Has Only Just Begun

In June, privacy advocates celebrated the passage of a historic bill in California that gave residents of that state unprecedented control over how companies use their data. Two months later, the party’s over.

Lobbying groups and trade associations, including several representing the tech industry, immediately started pushing for a litany of deep changes that they say would make the law easier to implement before it goes into effect in January 2020. But privacy advocates worry that pressure from powerful businesses could end up gutting the law completely.

“This is their job: to try to make this thing absolutely meaningless. Our job is to say no,” says Alastair MacTaggart, chair of the group Californians for Consumer Privacy, which sponsored a ballot initiative that would have circumvented the legislature and put the California Consumer Privacy Act to a vote in November. Big Tech and other industries lobbied fiercely against the initiative. In June, MacTaggart withdrew it once the bill, known as AB 375, passed.

At the most basic level, the law allows California residents to see what data companies collect on them, request that it be deleted, know what companies their data has been sold to, and direct businesses to stop selling that information to third parties. But the task of shaping the specifics is now in the hands of lawmakers—and the special interests they cater to.

“The new sheriffs showed up and drew a gun. Then they put it down and walked away,” Kevin Baker, legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union in California, says, referring to MacTaggart’s initiative. “Now that they’ve done that, and the initiative threat has gone away, we’re back to politics as usual.”

The Clean-Up

With just three days left in the legislative session, California lawmakers are scrambling to vote on a new bill, called SB-1121. The original bill had been hastily written and passed in an effort to keep MacTaggart’s initiative off the ballot. The original goal of SB-1121 was to deal with typos and other small, technical errors, with the hope of introducing more substantive changes in further legislation next year. But over the last few weeks, groups like the Chamber of Commerce and the Internet Association, which represents companies like Google and Facebook, have pushed for significant alterations, even as the tech industry works to develop a federal privacy bill that would, if passed, override California’s law.

“The lack of precise and clear definitions in this legislation will make compliance difficult for companies looking to do the right thing,” Robert Callahan, vice president of state government affairs at the Internet Association, said in a statement. “This could lead to serious and costly consequences for internet businesses in California, which contribute 11.5 percent to the state’s overall GDP, as well as every other sector of the economy.”

In early August, a coalition of nearly 40 organizations, ranging from the banking industry to the film industry to the tech industry’s leading lobbying groups, sent a 20-page letter to the lawmakers behind SB-1121, effectively a wish list of changes. While the suggestions weren’t ultimately included in the draft that legislators will vote on this week, they’re a clear sign of the battle in store for 2019.

‘If these changes are permitted, a business could offer incentives that are unjust or unreasonable.’

Mary Stone Ross, Privacy Advocate

Among the most significant proposed changes was a reframing of who the law considers a “consumer.” The bill as written applies to all California residents, a provision that industry groups wrote would be “unworkable and have numerous unintended consequences.” Instead, trade groups wanted the law only to apply to people whose data was collected because they made a purchase from a business, or used that business’s service. They also proposed making it so that only businesses had the right to identify people as consumers, and not the other way around.

Such a change might seem small, but it would substantially narrow the law’s scope, says Mary Stone Ross, who helped draft the ballot initiative as the former president of Californians for Consumer Privacy. “This is significant because it [would] not apply to information that a business does not obtain directly from the consumer,” Ross says, like data sold by data brokers or other third parties.

Another major change sought to tweak disclosure requirements. Whereas the original bill requires companies to share specific pieces of data, the industry groups prefer to draw the line at “categories of personal information.”

There are other, subtler suggested changes, too, that Ross says would have sweeping implications. The law includes language that would prevent a business from discriminating against people by, say, charging them inordinate fees if they opt out of data collection. But prohibiting blanket discrimination is too broad for the business groups, who want to add a caveat specifying that they may not “unreasonably” discriminate. In another section, which discusses offering consumers incentives for the sale of their data, the industry groups also proposed striking the words “unjust” and “unreasonable” from a line that reads, “A business shall not use financial incentive practices that are unjust, unreasonable, coercive, or usurious in nature.”

“If these changes are permitted, a business could offer incentives that are unjust or unreasonable,” Ross says. Weakening these non-discrimination provisions, she says, could “turn privacy into a commodity that will disproportionately burden the poor.”

On Tuesday night, during an Assembly hearing on the bill, the final sticking point, particularly for the tech giants, was the law’s handling of data collected for the purposes of advertising. While the law prohibits users from opting out of advertising altogether, it does allow them to opt out of the sale of their personal information to a third party. But the industry wanted to create an exception for information that’s sold for the purposes of targeted advertising, where the users’ identities aren’t disclosed to that third party. Privacy groups including the ACLU and EFF vehemently opposed the proposal, as did MacTaggart. They argued that such a carve-out would create too big a loophole for businesses and undermine consumers’ right to truly know everything businesses had collected on them.

“I was surprised they were this blatant, this early,” MacTaggart says. “I expected this attack in 2019, but not in August 2018, two months after we passed the bill in the first place. “

As of Tuesday night, the industry groups failed to get that amendment into the bill. But MacTaggart and others expect to fight this battle all over again next year.

Room for Improvement

It’s not that the privacy bill is perfect. The ACLU, for one, criticized the bill’s exclusion of a provision in the ballot initiative that would have given people the right to sue companies for violating their data privacy rights. It instead leaves enforcement up to the Attorney General, except in the case of a data breach. In turn, attorney general Xavier Becerra proposed his own list of changes to the law in a letter last week, including the restoration of people’s ability to sue.

As the bill was being finalized, all sides did agree to some tweaks, like clarifying language that would protect data collected through clinical trials and other health-related information. Another change ensures that information collected by journalists remains safeguarded. And while the Attorney General didn’t get everything he asked for, the legislature did agree to provide his office with an additional six months to implement enforcement regulations.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation also concedes the law needs more substantive work. The organization wants to change the bill so that consumers would be able to opt into data collection, rather than opt out. The EFF also wants to ensure the law applies not just to businesses that buy and sell data, but data they share freely, sometimes at no cost to either party. That’s how some app developers were able to gain access to tons of Facebook user’s friends’ data for years.

‘I was surprised they were this blatant, this early.’

Alastair MacTaggart, Californians for Consumer Privacy

And yet Lee Tien, senior staff attorney at the EFF, says the business groups’ hamfisted efforts to jam so many changes through in a matter of months is counterproductive. “There will be battles over the definition of consumer and personal information, and we’re prepared to talk seriously about those definitions,” he says. “But that can’t happen in any kind of responsible, grown-up way, in a short period of time.”

For now, all sides at least agree that SB-1121 is effectively a stopgap. The fact that big businesses didn’t get their way this time hardly signals a resounding victory for privacy. Next year’s legislative session will likely see new bills with even more serious changes proposed by influential industries. “They’ve got another chance to succeed, and they’ll be back for sure,” Baker says.

“One of the reasons why AB 375 passed unanimously is everyone knew there’d be a cleanup bill, and they had plenty of time to lobby to get their changes through,” adds Ross, who opposed pulling the ballot initiative in June.

Some engaged citizen, of course, could always mount another bid for a ballot initiative, but with the 2018 deadline already passed, that couldn’t happen until at least 2020, and it would take millions more dollars to put up another fight. That’s left activists like Ross and MacTaggart relatively powerless in the very battle they began.

“I can talk to people and wave my arms around,” MacTaggart says. “But the day I signed to give up the petition, I’m like Cinderella back in a pumpkin.”


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Hacking a fresh Mac Remotely, Right from the Box

Apple’s supply string the most closely checked and analyzed on earth, both because of the control the organization exerts and keen interest from 3rd events. But there is nevertheless never an assurance a mass-produced item will come from the field completely pristine. In reality, it’s possible to remotely compromise a fresh Mac initially it links to Wi-Fi.

That assault, which researchers will demonstrate Thursday at Ebony Hat security conference in Las vegas, nevada, targets enterprise Macs that utilize Apple’s Device Enrollment Program and its particular Mobile Device Management platform. These enterprise tools enable employees of a company to walk through personalized IT setup of a Mac themselves, no matter if they work in a satellite workplace or from home. The idea is an organization can ship Macs to its employees straight from Apple’s warehouses, plus the products will automatically configure to participate their business ecosystem after booting up the very first time and connecting to Wi-Fi.

DEP and MDM demand a lot of privileged access to make all of that secret happen. Then when Jesse Endahl, the chief security officer for the Mac administration company Fleetsmith, and Max Bélanger, a staff engineer at Dropbox, found a bug in these setup tools, they realized they might exploit it to get unusual remote Mac access.

“We discovered a bug that allows united states to compromise the product and install harmful pc software before the user is ever also logged set for the first time,” Endahl says. “By the time they’re logging in, once they see the desktop, the computer is already compromised.”

The scientists notified Apple in regards to the issue, and the business circulated a fix in macOS High Sierra 10.13.6 last thirty days, but products which have been already manufactured and ship with an older version of the os will still be vulnerable. Bélanger and Endahl also keep in mind that Mobile Device Management vendors—third events like Fleetsmith that businesses hire to implement Apple’s enterprise scheme—also should support 10.13.6 to fully mitigate the vulnerability.

The Setup

Each time a Mac turns on and connects to Wi-Fi the very first time, it checks in with Apple’s servers basically to say, “Hey, I’m a MacBook with this particular serial quantity. Do I fit in with somebody? What should I do?”

‘If you’re capable set this up at the business level you might infect everybody.’

Max Bélanger, Dropbox

If the serial number is enrolled within DEP and MDM, that first check will automatically initiate a predetermined setup series, through a number of additional checks with Apple’s servers as well as an MDM merchant’s servers. Companies typically count on a third-party MDM facilitator to navigate Apple’s enterprise ecosystem. During each step of the process, the system uses “certificate pinning,” a method of confirming that particular internet servers are whom they claim. However the researchers found a problem during one action. Whenever MDM hands to the Mac App Store to install enterprise software, the sequence retrieves a manifest for what to download and where to install it without pinning to confirm the manifest’s authenticity.

In case a hacker could lurk somewhere between the MDM merchant’s internet server while the target unit, they might replace the download manifest having harmful the one that instructs the computer to as an alternative install malware. Architecting this elaborate man-in-the-middle assault is too hard or expensive the typical web criminal, but well-funded and driven hackers could manage it. The tainted download server would should also have legitimate internet certification, another hurdle that makes the assault harder but most certainly not impossible. From there, attackers could install such a thing from spyware to cryptojacking pc software on vulnerable Macs. They might even grow a malicious tool that evaluates devices on a corporate community discover susceptible systems it could distribute to. As soon as a hacker has put up the assault, it could target every Apple computer a given company places through the MDM procedure.

“among the aspects that’s scary about any of it is when you’re able to set this up at the business level you might infect everybody according to where you are doing the man-in-the-middle,” Bélanger says. “This all takes place really early in the device’s setup, so there aren’t actually limitations on what those setup elements can do. They have complete power, so they’re vulnerable to being compromised in a pretty unique method.”

Tricky Target

Bélanger and Endahl anxiety your attack isn’t effortless. They may be able only show a form of it at Black Hat because Endahl works at Fleetsmith, and that can create the certified server while the man-in-the-middle assault on MDM merchant himself. And so they praise Apple’s application security and also the MDM process general, noting that Apple has produced the capability to kill harmful apps once the company discovers them.

But they emphasize that it will be possible for a well-funded, determined attacker to exploit the flaw should they were buying method onto Macs. Plus the prospective to make use of the assault as being a leaping down point to bore deeper into corporate networks would have lots of appeal. Hackers might even simplify the assault by focusing on employees whom home based and are also more straightforward to man-in-the-middle, as a result of their consumer-grade routers.

“The attack is so powerful that some federal government would be incentivized to set up the task doing it,” Endahl says.

Apple’s patch will proliferate quickly to negate the flaw, but it is a good reminder no matter that also minute weaknesses in an ecosystem since elaborate as Apple’s can have possibly severe effects.


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Smartphone Voting Is Happening, but No One Knows if It’s Safe

When news hit this week that West Virginian military members serving abroad will become the first people to vote by phone in a major US election this November, security experts were dismayed. For years, they have warned that all forms of online voting are particularly vulnerable to attacks, and with signs that the midterm elections are already being targeted, they worry this is exactly the wrong time to roll out a new method. Experts who spoke to WIRED doubt that Voatz, the Boston-based startup whose app will run the West Virginia mobile voting, has figured out how to secure online voting when no one else has. At the very least, they are concerned about the lack of transparency.

“From what is available publicly about this app, it’s no different from sending voting materials over the internet,” says Marian Schneider, president of the nonpartisan advocacy group Verified Voting. “So that means that all the built-in vulnerability of doing the voting transactions over the internet is present.”

And there are a lot of vulnerabilities when it comes to voting over the internet. The device a person is using could be compromised by malware. Or their browser could be compromised. In many online voting systems, voters receive a link to an online portal in an email from their election officials—a link that could be spoofed to redirect to a different website. There’s also the risk that someone could impersonate the voter. The servers that online voting systems rely on could themselves be targeted by viruses to tamper with votes or by DDoS attacks to bring down the whole system. Crucially, electronic votes don’t create the paper trail that allows officials to audit elections after the fact, or to serve as a backup if there is in fact tampering.

But the thing is, people want to vote by phone. In a 2016 Consumer Reports survey of 3,649 voting-age Americans, 33 percent of respondents said that they would be more likely to vote if they could do it from an internet-connected device like a smartphone. (Whether it would actually increase voter turnout is unclear; a 2014 report conducted by an independent panel on internet voting in British Columbia concludes that, when all factors are considered, online voting doesn’t actually lead more people to vote.)

Thirty-one states and Washington, DC, already allow certain people, mostly service members abroad, to file absentee ballots online, according to Verified Voting. But in 28 of those states—including Alaska, where any registered voter can vote online—online voters must waive their right to a secret ballot, underscoring another major risk that security experts worry about with online voting: that it can’t protect voter privacy.

“Because of current technological limitations, and the unique challenges of running public elections, it is impossible to maintain separation of voters’ identities from their votes when Internet voting is used,” concludes a 2016 joint report from Common Cause, Verified Voting, and the Electronic Privacy Information Center. That’s true whether those votes were logged by email, fax, or an online portal.

Enter Voatz

Voatz says it’s different. The 12-person startup, which raised $2.2 million in venture capital in January, has worked on dozens of pilot elections, including primaries in two West Virginia counties this May. On a website FAQ, it notes, “There are several important differences between traditional Internet voting and the West Virginia pilot—mainly, security.”

Voatz CEO Nimit Sawhney says the app has two features that make it more secure than other forms of online voting: the biometrics it uses to authenticate a voter and the blockchain ledger where it stores the votes.

The biometrics part occurs when a voter authenticates their identity using a fingerprint scan on their phones. The app works only on certain Androids and recent iPhones with that feature. Voters must also upload a photo of an official ID—which Sawhney says Voatz verifies by scanning their barcodes—and a video selfie, which Voatz will match to the ID using facial-recognition technology. (“You have to move your face and blink your eyes to make sure you are not taking a video of somebody else or taking a picture of a picture,” Sawhney says.) It’s up to election officials to decide whether a voter should have to upload a new selfie or fingerprint scan each time they access the app or just the first time.

“We feel like that extra level of anonymization on the phone and on the network makes it really really hard to reverse-engineer.”

Nimit Sawhney, Voatz

The blockchain comes in after the votes are entered. “The network then verifies it—there’s a whole bunch of checks—then adds it to the blockchain, where it stays in a lockbox until election night,” Sawhney says. Voatz uses a permissioned blockchain, which is run by a specific group of people with granted access, as opposed to a public blockchain like Bitcoin. And in order for election officials to access the votes on election night, they need Voatz to hand deliver them the cryptographic keys.

Sawhney says that election officials print out a copy of each vote once they access them, in order to do an audit. He also tells WIRED that in the version of the app that people will use in November, Voatz will add a way for voters to take a screenshot of their vote and have that separately sent to election officials for a secondary audit.

To address concerns about ballot secrecy, Sawhney says Voatz deletes all personal identification data from its servers, assigns each person a unique but anonymous identifier within the system, and employs a mix of network encryption methods. “We feel like that extra level of anonymization on the phone and on the network makes it really really hard to reverse-engineer,” he says.

Experts Are Concerned

Very little information is publicly available about the technical architecture behind the Voatz app. The company says it has done a security audit with three third-party security firms, but the results of that audit are not public. Sawhney says the audit contains proprietary and security information that can’t leak to the public. He invited any security researchers who want to see the audit to come to Boston and view it in Voatz’s secure room after signing an NDA.

This lack of transparency worries people who’ve been studying voting security for a long time. “In over a decade, multiple studies by the top experts in the field have concluded that internet voting cannot be made secure with current technology. VOATZ claims to have done something that is not doable with current technology, but WON’T TELL US HOW,” writes Stanford computer scientist and Verified Voting founder David Dill in an email to WIRED.

Voatz shared one white paper with WIRED, but it lacks the kind of information experts might expect—details on the system architecture, threat tests, how the system responds to specific attacks, verification from third parties. “In my opinion, anybody purporting to have securely and robustly applied blockchain technology to voting should have prepared a detailed analysis of how their system would respond to a long list of known threats that voting systems must respond to, and should have made their analysis public,” Carnegie Mellon computer scientist David Eckhardt wrote in an email.

Ideally, experts say, Voatz would have held a public testing period of its app before deploying it in a live election. Back in 2010, for example, Washington, DC, was developing an open-source system for online voting and invited the public to try to hack the system in a mock trial. Researchers from the University of Michigan were able to compromise the election server in 48 hours and change all the vote tallies, according to their report afterward. They also found evidence of foreign operatives already in the DC election server. This kind of testing is now considered best practice for any online voting implementation, according to Eckhardt. Voatz’s trials have been in real primaries.

“West Virginia is handing over its votes to a mystery box.”

David Dill, Stanford University

Voatz’s use of blockchain itself does not inspire security experts, either, who dismissed it mostly as marketing. When asked for his thoughts on Voatz’s blockchain technology, University of Michigan computer scientist Alex Halderman, who was part of the group that threat-tested the DC voting portal in 2010, sent WIRED a recent XKCD cartoon about voting software. In the last panel, a stick figure with a microphone tells two software engineers, “They say they’ve fixed it with something called ‘blockchain.’” The engineers’ response? “Aaaaa!!!” “Whatever they’ve sold you, don’t touch it.” “Bury it in the desert.” “Wear gloves.”

“Voting from an app on a mobile phone is as bad an idea as voting online from a computer,” says Avi Rubin, technical director of the Information Security Institute at Johns Hopkins, who has studied electronic voting systems since 1997. “The fact that someone is throwing around the blockchain buzzword does nothing to make this more secure. This is as bad an idea as there is.”

Blockchain has its own limitations, and it’s far from a perfect security solution for something like voting. First of all, information can be manipulated before it enters the chain. “In fact, there is an entire industry in viruses to manipulate cryptocurrency transactions before they enter the blockchain, and there is nothing to prevent the use of similar viruses to change the vote,” says Poorvi Vora, a computer scientist and election security expert at George Washington University.

She adds that if the blockchain is a permissioned version, as Voatz’s is, “It is possible for those maintaining the blockchain to collude to change the data, as well as to introduce denial of service type attacks.”

Sawhney pushes back against this last critique, telling WIRED that the blockchain verifiers in the Voatz system is a collection of vetted stakeholders such as Voatz itself, election officials, nonprofit voting auditors, and politicians.

And even though the transaction is through an app rather than a browser, Vora says previously identified risks of internet voting remain. “Both the browser and the app run on the operating system underneath, and both, hence, inherit the vulnerabilities that go with relying entirely on software,” she says.

Sawhney admits the concern about malware on a person’s device is legitimate but thinks that creating a program to manipulate votes would be so hard as to be impractical. “It’s theoretically possible, if that malware had been specifically written to intercept votes passing, to reverse-engineer our application, break all our keys, specifically modify if somebody marks oval A change it to oval B, and then bypass the identifier and send it to the network, but that is so, so hard to do in real time,” he says. “It is possible, but we haven’t found a way to do it.” He adds that the app checks the phone for malware before downloading on a device, though he admits it could be possible for malware to go undetected.

The role of facial recognition in authenticating voter identities is another thing that concerns experts. Schneider worries that there could be ways to trick that technology using videos available elsewhere on the internet, for instance. And Vora notes that facial-recognition technology has known racial biases that could affect who even is able to access Voatz.

Sawhney tells WIRED that Voatz has people manually check the facial-recognition authorization. This is possible at the moment but could become an issue if the technology were to be introduced to a wider electorate, as Voatz states on its website is the ultimate goal. In fact, Voatz has already encountered a scaling problem. When Utah GOP voters tried to use the app during their caucus in April, many couldn’t get it to work. You can read about many voters’ experience in bad reviews of Voatz they left in Apple’s App Store. Sawhney tells WIRED that the issues stemmed from voters attempting to download the app and authenticate themselves minutes before polls closed, which didn’t give Voatz enough time.

Though Voatz has answers for much of the criticism it has faced this week, none of its responses are likely to convince security experts that the smartphone voting app is ready for November. At the very least, the security world’s reaction to Voatz underscores how important transparency is in the rollout of any new voting system. “West Virginia is handing over its votes to a mystery box,” Dill says.

But election officials in West Virginia are enthusiastic about the app. “They used it in the primary in a couple of the other counties to do a test drive, and they said it was wonderful,” says Kanawha County Clerk Vera McCormick, who oversees voting in the state capital of Charleston and plans to allow the 60 overseas military members registered in her county to use Voatz to vote. “We’re excited and my understanding is the security is wonderful, so we’ll find out.”


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