The Cyber Guys: Critical Vulnerabilities in Voting Machines – Easy To Hack

J. Alex Halderman, a Computer Science professor at the University of Michigan, walks into a courtroom in Georgia. He borrowed a pen from the defense attorney and in under a minute he had broken into a Dominion voting machine where he could make the results anything that he wanted without a trace of his breach. 

Dr. Halderman was an expert witness that demonstrated just how vulnerable these voting machines are to tampering. He used a pen to hold down the power button on the voting machine. He waited 7 seconds until it came up in “safe” mode. From there he could open files and change the contents of files to include the results and audit files without a password.

Later Dr. Halderman showed how with just a $30 purchase on Amazon, he was able to create a technician card for the voting machines that gave him super user access. Once programmed, a hacker could make as many technician cards as needed and distribute across the voting area.

At this point you might be thinking, OK, but how many computer science professors are going to hack a voting machine? Well, it turns out in August of 2018 at a DEFCON hackathon conference, it took an 11-year-old boy 10 minutes to hack a simulated Florida state voting website and change the results of the election. There was not just one child, but 30 of the 50 children with age ranging from 8 to 16 were able to hack the simulated election website. 

Over the last 6 years there have been many lawsuits concerning the use of these machines all over the country. Not only in Georgia, but Pennsylvania, Michigan, Texas, Arizona, and more.

But it’s not just Dominion machines that have vulnerabilities. In the summer of 2020, students from the University of Pennsylvania conducted an audit of the ES&S voting system1. ES&S claims to be the world’s largest e-voting system vendor, supporting more than 67 million voter registrations with 97,000 touchscreen voting machines installed in 20 states, with optical ballot readers in 43 states. 

The team reported numerous critical vulnerabilities existed in nearly every component of the ES&S system. They identified serious and undetectable attacks that could be carried out by poll-workers and even individual voters. What makes matters worse is that these attacks are not limited to the local machines. There are several attacks that propagate like a virus to the backend systems on the network affecting all the results of a precinct or an entire county. According to their report, virtually every mechanism for assuring the integrity of precinct results and backend systems can be circumvented. With these machines, they found that almost every major component of ES&S can be altered or replaced by other components with which it communicates. In other words, there are many ways to get to the back end to modify the results. 

The calibration of the touchscreen affects how the voters’ input maps to different locations on the screen. If the calibration is incorrect, it could alter the voters’ choices. For example I vote for Alice for the school board on the touch screen, but the machine selected the opponent, Bob. This happened in Pennsylvania in the 2023 Superior Court election. When a voter would select ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on their ballot for one of the candidates, the vote was recorded on the paper ballot and the machine for the other candidate.

Some countries like Argentina and the Philippines have recently banned the use of the machines due to their vulnerabilities. There is talk in different states around the country about doing the same. What should we do to ensure that each voter’s choice counts?

The original article was published in the Sierra Vista Herald here.

The $100 Million Phone Call – Tale of the MGM Hack

In 2008, an Australian man received a $147,000 phone bill while traveling in Europe. It appeared his 12-year-old son was playing a game of “Tap, Tap, Revenge” on his iPhone the whole time. That was quite a bill, but it is peanuts compared to the 10-minute phone call to technical support that cost MGM Resorts close to $100 Million.  

In September of 2023, a group of cyber hackers from the US and UK, ranging in age from 19-22 called Scattered Spider, used social engineering to take down many of the operations of the almost $34 Billion gambling giant. Cyber criminals went to the Linked-In social media page to find an employee that works in IT for MGM Resorts. A member of the State sponsored group named Scattered Spider called the MGM tech support team impersonating a hard-working IT employee that needed a password reset. After 10 minutes on the phone, the hackers owned that account. This was the cornerstone of the operation. If tech support verified who they were talking to prior to resetting the password, this attack may have been less damaging. The helpful tech support worker had an amygdala hijacking. The urgency to help took over the logical part of the brain that would have verified the caller.  

Once in the network, they escalated their privileges (gained admin rights) and found their way into the most valuable computers. The computers were responsible for the hospitality applications used to run the hotels and casinos. The hacking group loaded ransomware on over 100 servers. One by one the ransomware encrypted the systems and the applications crashed. Hotel keys no longer worked. Slot machines were unavailable. Point-of-Sales systems (credit cards) were unable to take payments. Guests were not able to reserve rooms and check in or out. MGM saw operations in eight states affected by the intrusion.  

Because MGM did not immediately pay the ransom, their systems were in a state of upheaval for 10 days. The losses from the disabled slot machines alone cost MGM an estimate of $5 Million a day. Some estimate a total loss of $8.4 Million per day. MGM Resorts International claimed the disruption in service caused a $100 Million loss in the third quarter results. Additionally, they spent another $10 Million on legal fees and technical consulting. As a result of the attack, their stock dropped $850 Million in market value. They have since recovered that loss. However, their biggest loss might be the damage to their reputation.  

Just a week before, another casino giant, Caesars Entertainment, suffered a ransomware attack. In contrast they immediately negotiated the ransom from $30 to $15 Million and saw only minimal disruption. The bright side (if there was one) for both corporations was that they both carried excellent cybersecurity insurance policies which covered the cost.  

There may be legitimate business reasons to pay the ransom, but it comes with an additional ethical price. The ransom you pay funds other elicit criminal activities like drug smuggling and human trafficking. We will save that discussion for another day.  

Don’t think this only happens to huge corporations, it happens to small and medium sized companies every day in America. Employees need cybersecurity training, so they don’t fall for the kind of trick played on MGM. You need to have company policies in place to protect against impersonation. You need business plans such as Incident Response Plans and Contingency of Operation plans developed and ready in case of an attack or disaster.

Keep all that in mind for your business the next time you receive an unexpected call. What will this phone call really cost? 

Original article in the Sierra Vista Herald found here: