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Internet Voting in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico is considered allowing for Internet voting. I have joined a group of security experts in a letter opposing the bill.

Cybersecurity experts agree that under current technology, no practically proven method exists to securely, verifiably, or privately return voted materials over the internet. That means that votes could be manipulated or deleted on the voter’s computer without the voter’s knowledge, local elections officials cannot verify that the voter’s ballot reflects the voter’s intent, and the voter’s selections could be traceable back to the individual voter. Such a system could violate protections guaranteeing a secret ballot, as outlined in Section 2, Article II of the Puerto Rico Constitution.

The ACLU agrees.

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Voatz Internet Voting App Is Insecure

This paper describes the flaws in the Voatz Internet voting app: “The Ballot is Busted Before the Blockchain: A Security Analysis of Voatz, the First Internet Voting Application Used in U.S. Federal Elections.”

Abstract: In the 2018 midterm elections, West Virginia became the first state in the U.S. to allow select voters to cast their ballot on a mobile phone via a proprietary app called “Voatz.” Although there is no public formal description of Voatz’s security model, the company claims that election security and integrity are maintained through the use of a permissioned blockchain, biometrics, a mixnet, and hardware-backed key storage modules on the user’s device. In this work, we present the first public security analysis of Voatz, based on a reverse engineering of their Android application and the minimal available documentation of the system. We performed a clean-room reimplementation of Voatz’s server and present an analysis of the election process as visible from the app itself.

We find that Voatz has vulnerabilities that allow different kinds of adversaries to alter, stop, or expose a user’s vote,including a sidechannel attack in which a completely passive network adversary can potentially recover a user’s secret ballot. We additionally find that Voatz has a number of privacy issues stemming from their use of third party services for crucial app functionality. Our findings serve as a concrete illustration of the common wisdom against Internet voting,and of the importance of transparency to the legitimacy of elections.

News articles.

The company’s response is a perfect illustration of why non-computer non-security companies have no idea what they’re doing, and should not be trusted with any form of security.

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Smartphone Election in Washington State

This year:

King County voters will be able to use their name and birthdate to log in to a Web portal through the Internet browser on their phones, says Bryan Finney, the CEO of Democracy Live, the Seattle-based voting company providing the technology.

Once voters have completed their ballots, they must verify their submissions and then submit a signature on the touch screen of their device.

Finney says election officials in Washington are adept at signature verification because the state votes entirely by mail. That will be the way people are caught if they log in to the system under false pretenses and try to vote as someone else.

The King County elections office plans to print out the ballots submitted electronically by voters whose signatures match and count the papers alongside the votes submitted through traditional routes.

While advocates say this creates an auditable paper trail, many security experts say that because the ballots cross the Internet before they are printed, any subsequent audits on them would be moot. If a cyberattack occurred, an audit could essentially require double-checking ballots that may already have been altered, says Buell.

Of course it’s not an auditable paper trail. There’s a reason why security experts use the phrase “voter-verifiable paper ballots.” A centralized printout of a received Internet message is not voter verifiable.

Another news article.

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Artificial Personas and Public Discourse

Presidential campaign season is officially, officially, upon us now, which means it’s time to confront the weird and insidious ways in which technology is warping politics. One of the biggest threats on the horizon: artificial personas are coming, and they’re poised to take over political debate. The risk arises from two separate threads coming together: artificial intelligence-driven text generation and social media chatbots. These computer-generated “people” will drown out actual human discussions on the Internet.

Text-generation software is already good enough to fool most people most of the time. It’s writing news stories, particularly in sports and finance. It’s talking with customers on merchant websites. It’s writing convincing op-eds on topics in the news (though there are limitations). And it’s being used to bulk up “pink-slime journalism” — websites meant to appear like legitimate local news outlets but that publish propaganda instead.

There’s a record of algorithmic content pretending to be from individuals, as well. In 2017, the Federal Communications Commission had an online public-commenting period for its plans to repeal net neutrality. A staggering 22 million comments were received. Many of them — maybe half — were fake, using stolen identities. These comments were also crude; 1.3 million were generated from the same template, with some words altered to make them appear unique. They didn’t stand up to even cursory scrutiny.

These efforts will only get more sophisticated. In a recent experiment, Harvard senior Max Weiss used a text-generation program to create 1,000 comments in response to a government call on a Medicaid issue. These comments were all unique, and sounded like real people advocating for a specific policy position. They fooled the Medicaid.gov administrators, who accepted them as genuine concerns from actual human beings. This being research, Weiss subsequently identified the comments and asked for them to be removed, so that no actual policy debate would be unfairly biased. The next group to try this won’t be so honorable.

Chatbots have been skewing social-media discussions for years. About a fifth of all tweets about the 2016 presidential election were published by bots, according to one estimate, as were about a third of all tweets about that year’s Brexit vote. An Oxford Internet Institute report from last year found evidence of bots being used to spread propaganda in 50 countries. These tended to be simple programs mindlessly repeating slogans: a quarter million pro-Saudi “We all have trust in Mohammed bin Salman” tweets following the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, for example. Detecting many bots with a few followers each is harder than detecting a few bots with lots of followers. And measuring the effectiveness of these bots is difficult. The best analyses indicate that they did not affect the 2016 US presidential election. More likely, they distort people’s sense of public sentiment and their faith in reasoned political debate. We are all in the middle of a novel social experiment.

Over the years, algorithmic bots have evolved to have personas. They have fake names, fake bios, and fake photos — sometimes generated by AI. Instead of endlessly spewing propaganda, they post only occasionally. Researchers can detect that these are bots and not people, based on their patterns of posting, but the bot technology is getting better all the time, outpacing tracking attempts. Future groups won’t be so easily identified. They’ll embed themselves in human social groups better. Their propaganda will be subtle, and interwoven in tweets about topics relevant to those social groups.

Combine these two trends and you have the recipe for nonhuman chatter to overwhelm actual political speech.

Soon, AI-driven personas will be able to write personalized letters to newspapers and elected officials, submit individual comments to public rule-making processes, and intelligently debate political issues on social media. They will be able to comment on social-media posts, news sites, and elsewhere, creating persistent personas that seem real even to someone scrutinizing them. They will be able to pose as individuals on social media and send personalized texts. They will be replicated in the millions and engage on the issues around the clock, sending billions of messages, long and short. Putting all this together, they’ll be able to drown out any actual debate on the Internet. Not just on social media, but everywhere there’s commentary.

Maybe these persona bots will be controlled by foreign actors. Maybe it’ll be domestic political groups. Maybe it’ll be the candidates themselves. Most likely, it’ll be everybody. The most important lesson from the 2016 election about misinformation isn’t that misinformation occurred; it is how cheap and easy misinforming people was. Future technological improvements will make it all even more affordable.

Our future will consist of boisterous political debate, mostly bots arguing with other bots. This is not what we think of when we laud the marketplace of ideas, or any democratic political process. Democracy requires two things to function properly: information and agency. Artificial personas can starve people of both.

Solutions are hard to imagine. We can regulate the use of bots — a proposed California law would require bots to identify themselves — but that is effective only against legitimate influence campaigns, such as advertising. Surreptitious influence operations will be much harder to detect. The most obvious defense is to develop and standardize better authentication methods. If social networks verify that an actual person is behind each account, then they can better weed out fake personas. But fake accounts are already regularly created for real people without their knowledge or consent, and anonymous speech is essential for robust political debate, especially when speakers are from disadvantaged or marginalized communities. We don’t have an authentication system that both protects privacy and scales to the billions of users.

We can hope that our ability to identify artificial personas keeps up with our ability to disguise them. If the arms race between deep fakes and deep-fake detectors is any guide, that’ll be hard as well. The technologies of obfuscation always seem one step ahead of the technologies of detection. And artificial personas will be designed to act exactly like real people.

In the end, any solutions have to be nontechnical. We have to recognize the limitations of online political conversation, and again prioritize face-to-face interactions. These are harder to automate, and we know the people we’re talking with are actual people. This would be a cultural shift away from the internet and text, stepping back from social media and comment threads. Today that seems like a completely unrealistic solution.

Misinformation efforts are now common around the globe, conducted in more than 70 countries. This is the normal way to push propaganda in countries with authoritarian leanings, and it’s becoming the way to run a political campaign, for either a candidate or an issue.

Artificial personas are the future of propaganda. And while they may not be effective in tilting debate to one side or another, they easily drown out debate entirely. We don’t know the effect of that noise on democracy, only that it’ll be pernicious, and that it’s inevitable.

This essay previously appeared in TheAtlantic.com.

EDITED TO ADD: Jamie Susskind wrote a similar essay.

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Election Machine Insecurity Story

Interesting story of a flawed computer voting machine and a paper ballot available for recount. All ended well, but only because of that paper backup.

Vote totals in a Northampton County judge’s race showed one candidate, Abe Kassis, a Democrat, had just 164 votes out of 55,000 ballots across more than 100 precincts. Some machines reported zero votes for him. In a county with the ability to vote for a straight-party ticket, one candidate’s zero votes was a near statistical impossibility. Something had gone quite wrong.

Boing Boing post.

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How Political Campaigns Use Personal Data

Really interesting report from Tactical Tech.

Data-driven technologies are an inevitable feature of modern political campaigning. Some argue that they are a welcome addition to politics as normal and a necessary and modern approach to democratic processes; others say that they are corrosive and diminish trust in already flawed political systems. The use of these technologies in political campaigning is not going away; in fact, we can only expect their sophistication and prevalence to grow. For this reason, the techniques and methods need to be reviewed outside the dichotomy of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and beyond the headlines of ‘disinformation campaigns’.

All the data-driven methods presented in this guide would not exist without the commercial digital marketing and advertising industry. From analysing behavioural data to A/B testing and from geotargeting to psychometric profiling, political parties are using the same techniques to sell political candidates to voters that companies use to sell shoes to consumers. The question is, is that appropriate? And what impact does it have not only on individual voters, who may or may not be persuad-ed, but on the political environment as a whole?

The practice of political strategists selling candidates as brands is not new. Vance Packard wrote about the ‘depth probing’ techniques of ‘political persuaders’ as early as 1957. In his book, ‘The Hidden Persuaders’, Packard described political strategies designed to sell candidates to voters ‘like toothpaste’, and how public relations directors at the time boasted that ‘scientific methods take the guesswork out of politics’.5 In this sense, what we have now is a logical progression of the digitisation of marketing techniques and political persuasion techniques.

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DARPA Is Developing an Open-Source Voting System

This sounds like a good development:

…a new $10 million contract the Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has launched to design and build a secure voting system that it hopes will be impervious to hacking.

The first-of-its-kind system will be designed by an Oregon-based firm called Galois, a longtime government contractor with experience in designing secure and verifiable systems. The system will use fully open source voting software, instead of the closed, proprietary software currently used in the vast majority of voting machines, which no one outside of voting machine testing labs can examine. More importantly, it will be built on secure open source hardware, made from special secure designs and techniques developed over the last year as part of a special program at DARPA. The voting system will also be designed to create fully verifiable and transparent results so that voters don’t have to blindly trust that the machines and election officials delivered correct results.

But DARPA and Galois won’t be asking people to blindly trust that their voting systems are secure — as voting machine vendors currently do. Instead they’ll be publishing source code for the software online and bring prototypes of the systems to the Def Con Voting Village this summer and next, so that hackers and researchers will be able to freely examine the systems themselves and conduct penetration tests to gauge their security. They’ll also be working with a number of university teams over the next year to have them examine the systems in formal test environments.

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Russia Is Testing Online Voting

This is a bad idea:

A second innovation will allow “electronic absentee voting” within voters’ home precincts. In other words, Russia is set to introduce its first online voting system. The system will be tested in a Moscow neighborhood that will elect a single member to the capital’s city council in September. The details of how the experiment will work are not yet known; the State Duma’s proposal on Internet voting does not include logistical specifics. The Central Election Commission’s reference materials on the matter simply reference “absentee voting, blockchain technology.” When Dmitry Vyatkin, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, attempted to describe how exactly blockchains would be involved in the system, his explanation was entirely disconnected from the actual functions of that technology. A discussion of this new type of voting is planned for an upcoming public forum in Moscow.

Surely the Russians know that online voting is insecure. Could they not care, or do they think the surveillance is worth the risk?

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Propaganda and the Weakening of Trust in Government

On November 4, 2016, the hacker “Guccifer 2.0,: a front for Russia’s military intelligence service, claimed in a blogpost that the Democrats were likely to use vulnerabilities to hack the presidential elections. On November 9, 2018, President Donald Trump started tweeting about the senatorial elections in Florida and Arizona. Without any evidence whatsoever, he said that Democrats were trying to steal the election through “FRAUD.”

Cybersecurity experts would say that posts like Guccifer 2.0’s are intended to undermine public confidence in voting: a cyber-attack against the US democratic system. Yet Donald Trump’s actions are doing far more damage to democracy. So far, his tweets on the topic have been retweeted over 270,000 times, eroding confidence far more effectively than any foreign influence campaign.

We need new ideas to explain how public statements on the Internet can weaken American democracy. Cybersecurity today is not only about computer systems. It’s also about the ways attackers can use computer systems to manipulate and undermine public expectations about democracy. Not only do we need to rethink attacks against democracy; we also need to rethink the attackers as well.

This is one key reason why we wrote a new research paper which uses ideas from computer security to understand the relationship between democracy and information. These ideas help us understand attacks which destabilize confidence in democratic institutions or debate.

Our research implies that insider attacks from within American politics can be more pernicious than attacks from other countries. They are more sophisticated, employ tools that are harder to defend against, and lead to harsh political tradeoffs. The US can threaten charges or impose sanctions when Russian trolling agencies attack its democratic system. But what punishments can it use when the attacker is the US president?

People who think about cybersecurity build on ideas about confrontations between states during the Cold War. Intellectuals such as Thomas Schelling developed deterrence theory, which explained how the US and USSR could maneuver to limit each other’s options without ever actually going to war. Deterrence theory, and related concepts about the relative ease of attack and defense, seemed to explain the tradeoffs that the US and rival states faced, as they started to use cyber techniques to probe and compromise each others’ information networks.

However, these ideas fail to acknowledge one key differences between the Cold War and today. Nearly all states — whether democratic or authoritarian — are entangled on the Internet. This creates both new tensions and new opportunities. The US assumed that the internet would help spread American liberal values, and that this was a good and uncontroversial thing. Illiberal states like Russia and China feared that Internet freedom was a direct threat to their own systems of rule. Opponents of the regime might use social media and online communication to coordinate among themselves, and appeal to the broader public, perhaps toppling their governments, as happened in Tunisia during the Arab Spring.

This led illiberal states to develop new domestic defenses against open information flows. As scholars like Molly Roberts have shown, states like China and Russia discovered how they could “flood” internet discussion with online nonsense and distraction, making it impossible for their opponents to talk to each other, or even to distinguish between truth and falsehood. These flooding techniques stabilized authoritarian regimes, because they demoralized and confused the regime’s opponents. Libertarians often argue that the best antidote to bad speech is more speech. What Vladimir Putin discovered was that the best antidote to more speech was bad speech.

Russia saw the Arab Spring and efforts to encourage democracy in its neighborhood as direct threats, and began experimenting with counter-offensive techniques. When a Russia-friendly government in Ukraine collapsed due to popular protests, Russia tried to destabilize new, democratic elections by hacking the system through which the election results would be announced. The clear intention was to discredit the election results by announcing fake voting numbers that would throw public discussion into disarray.

This attack on public confidence in election results was thwarted at the last moment. Even so, it provided the model for a new kind of attack. Hackers don’t have to secretly alter people’s votes to affect elections. All they need to do is to damage public confidence that the votes were counted fairly. As researchers have argued, “simply put, the attacker might not care who wins; the losing side believing that the election was stolen from them may be equally, if not more, valuable.”

These two kinds of attacks — “flooding” attacks aimed at destabilizing public discourse, and “confidence” attacks aimed at undermining public belief in elections — were weaponized against the US in 2016. Russian social media trolls, hired by the “Internet Research Agency,” flooded online political discussions with rumors and counter-rumors in order to create confusion and political division. Peter Pomerantsev describes how in Russia, “one moment [Putin’s media wizard] Surkov would fund civic forums and human rights NGOs, the next he would quietly support nationalist movements that accuse the NGOs of being tools of the West.” Similarly, Russian trolls tried to get Black Lives Matter protesters and anti-Black Lives Matter protesters to march at the same time and place, to create conflict and the appearance of chaos. Guccifer 2.0’s blog post was surely intended to undermine confidence in the vote, preparing the ground for a wider destabilization campaign after Hillary Clinton won the election. Neither Putin nor anyone else anticipated that Trump would win, ushering in chaos on a vastly greater scale.

We do not know how successful these attacks were. A new book by John Sides, Michael Tesler and Lynn Vavreck suggests that Russian efforts had no measurable long-term consequences. Detailed research on the flow of news articles through social media by Yochai Benker, Robert Farris, and Hal Roberts agrees, showing that Fox News was far more influential in the spread of false news stories than any Russian effort.

However, global adversaries like the Russians aren’t the only actors who can use flooding and confidence attacks. US actors can use just the same techniques. Indeed, they can arguably use them better, since they have a better understanding of US politics, more resources, and are far more difficult for the government to counter without raising First Amendment issues.

For example, when the Federal Communication Commission asked for comments on its proposal to get rid of “net neutrality,” it was flooded by fake comments supporting the proposal. Nearly every real person who commented was in favor of net neutrality, but their arguments were drowned out by a flood of spurious comments purportedly made by identities stolen from porn sites, by people whose names and email addresses had been harvested without their permission, and, in some cases, from dead people. This was done not just to generate fake support for the FCC’s controversial proposal. It was to devalue public comments in general, making the general public’s support for net neutrality politically irrelevant. FCC decision making on issues like net neutrality used to be dominated by industry insiders, and many would like to go back to the old regime.

Trump’s efforts to undermine confidence in the Florida and Arizona votes work on a much larger scale. There are clear short-term benefits to asserting fraud where no fraud exists. This may sway judges or other public officials to make concessions to the Republicans to preserve their legitimacy. Yet they also destabilize American democracy in the long term. If Republicans are convinced that Democrats win by cheating, they will feel that their own manipulation of the system (by purging voter rolls, making voting more difficult and so on) are legitimate, and very probably cheat even more flagrantly in the future. This will trash collective institutions and leave everyone worse off.

It is notable that some Arizonan Republicans — including Martha McSally — have so far stayed firm against pressure from the White House and the Republican National Committee to claim that cheating is happening. They presumably see more long term value from preserving existing institutions than undermining them. Very plausibly, Donald Trump has exactly the opposite incentives. By weakening public confidence in the vote today, he makes it easier to claim fraud and perhaps plunge American politics into chaos if he is defeated in 2020.

If experts who see Russian flooding and confidence measures as cyberattacks on US democracy are right, then these attacks are just as dangerous — and perhaps more dangerous — when they are used by domestic actors. The risk is that over time they will destabilize American democracy so that it comes closer to Russia’s managed democracy — where nothing is real any more, and ordinary people feel a mixture of paranoia, helplessness and disgust when they think about politics. Paradoxically, Russian interference is far too ineffectual to get us there — but domestically mounted attacks by all-American political actors might.

To protect against that possibility, we need to start thinking more systematically about the relationship between democracy and information. Our paper provides one way to do this, highlighting the vulnerabilities of democracy against certain kinds of information attack. More generally, we need to build levees against flooding while shoring up public confidence in voting and other public information systems that are necessary to democracy.

The first may require radical changes in how we regulate social media companies. Modernization of government commenting platforms to make them robust against flooding is only a very minimal first step. Up until very recently, companies like Twitter have won market advantage from bot infestations — even when it couldn’t make a profit, it seemed that user numbers were growing. CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg have begun to worry about democracy, but their worries will likely only go so far. It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his business model depends on not understanding it. Sharp — and legally enforceable — limits on automated accounts are a first step. Radical redesign of networks and of trending indicators so that flooding attacks are less effective may be a second.

The second requires general standards for voting at the federal level, and a constitutional guarantee of the right to vote. Technical experts nearly universally favor robust voting systems that would combine paper records with random post-election auditing, to prevent fraud and secure public confidence in voting. Other steps to ensure proper ballot design, and standardize vote counting and reporting will take more time and discussion — yet the record of other countries show that they are not impossible.

The US is nearly unique among major democracies in the persistent flaws of its election machinery. Yet voting is not the only important form of democratic information. Apparent efforts to deliberately skew the US census against counting undocumented immigrants show the need for a more general audit of the political information systems that we need if democracy is to function properly.

It’s easier to respond to Russian hackers through sanctions, counter-attacks and the like than to domestic political attacks that undermine US democracy. To preserve the basic political freedoms of democracy requires recognizing that these freedoms are sometimes going to be abused by politicians such as Donald Trump. The best that we can do is to minimize the possibilities of abuse up to the point where they encroach on basic freedoms and harden the general institutions that secure democratic information against attacks intended to undermine them.

This essay was co-authored with Henry Farrell, and previously appeared on Motherboard, with a terrible headline that I was unable to get changed.

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