Episode 96: State Elections Officials on Front Line against Russian Hackers

In this episode of The Security Ledger Podcast (#96): with primary elections taking place in states across the United States in the coming weeks, we talk to John Dickson about how state elections offices have become the front line in a pitched battle with state-sponsored hackers – with the fate of a 240 year democracy hanging in the balance. Also: we talk about the looming threat posed by so-called “deep fake” videos that use computer manipulation to make famous celebrities appear to say nearly anything.

The Russians are Voting! The Russians are Voting!

Knox County Tennessee might not be on anyone’s map of election day “hot spots” where the fate of Congress will be decided. But the County may be a harbinger of things to come. On the evening of Tuesday, May 1, as polls were closing and results were beginning to roll in from that day’s primary election, a distributed denial of service (or DDoS) attack took out the web site used to display election results for the County.According to reports, the page was down for about an hour starting around 8 p.m. local time before officials were able to restore it, according to the county’s Election Commission.

People Line up to Vote
State and local elections officials find themselves on the front line against sophisticated cyber adversaries, says John Dickson of The Denim Group

The primary season has been uneventful so far. But votes in November will determine control of the US House and Senate, governorships and the control of state legislators. There is deep concern that a repeat of the 2016 presidential election is on tap, when disinformation campaigns and other actions by groups affiliated with the government of Russia are believed to have played a part.

In this week’s podcast we speak with John Dickson, a principal at The Denim Group, who has been interviewing and advising state and local election officials. Dickson believes that the November midterm elections are likely to be a “warm up act” for the real show: the 2020 Presidential contest. Even so, November 2018 will hardly be a fair fight.

[See also: Autonomous vehicles could save more lives than they take. That might not matter.]

“It’s a force mismatch,” said Dickson. “It is a fair fight between the Russian government and the US Military, US government and the agencies of the government – nation state to nation state. It is a force mismatch when you have the Russian state going after the secretary of state of North Dakota.”

[You might also like: Podcast Episode 90: WannaCry zombie haunts Boeing, UL tests for cyber security and Harvard war games election hacking]

The consequences couldn’t be higher. Dickson notes that there are 9,000 entities who administer elections in some form or fashion in the U.S., but malicious actors who are interested in tipping the results of a vote one way or the other may only need to influence a small number of precincts. That puts local election officials and administrators on the front lines of a cyber war between Russia and the US. In our conversation, Dickson talks about why 2018 won’t play out like 2016, what kinds of attacks the secretaries of state are likely to face and what state officials should be doing to prepare.

Deep Fakes will Kill the Video Star

When researchers at The University of Washington released a video last July in which a computer-manipulated video showed former President Barack Obama saying things that he never said, commentators were quick to go a dark place. With such technology in the hands of the masses, what kind of mischief might be unleashed in the heat of a political campaign or the middle of a crisis??!

Thus far, applications of so-called “deep fake” technology have been confined to YouTube and that great test bed of all new Internet technologies: the pornography industry. But Michael Fauscette, the Chief Research Officer at the firm G2 Crowd, says that the real fun is just beginning, as technology advancements drive deep fake technology to more and more sophisticated forgeries. That could destabilize already polarized societies that are prone to manipulation by misinformation.

In this conversation, Fauscette talks about what’s driving the development of deep fakes and how the new capabilities demand new tools to identify fakes and, says Faucette, more efforts by prominent platform owners to single out forgeries.

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One Comment

  1. The government has allocated a budget of $380 million to help safeguard U.S. voting systems from cyber-attacks. If the funds are used to the best potential along with the proper regulations, we can overcome the problem of the cyber-attacks.

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