A new challenge at this year's DEF CON will let kid hackers take aim at simulated election campaign financial disclosure portals and use their findings to stage disinformation campaigns.
DEF CON's Voting Village and AI Village have teamed up with r00tz Asylum, a nonprofit dedicated to educating kids about white-hat hacking, to teach budding infosec enthusiasts ages 8–16 about digital threats to democracy. Like the Voting Village, which lets adults explore flaws in election infrastructure, r00tz Asylum gives kids a chance to poke holes in election security.
Last year, r00tz Asylum made its first foray into election security. Kids used SQL injection to access and manipulate synthetic state election results websites, where they could change the candidates and displayed vote counts. It took two 11-year-old hackers just 15 minutes to crack a replica of the Florida Secretary of State's website and change its vote count reports.
This year's event puts a new spin on election security by letting kids explore bugs in simulated campaign financial disclosure portals using SQL injection code and other tactics. They'll then take fraudulent financial reports and attempt to spread them via disinformation campaigns.
"We are trying to teach kids about the vulnerabilities that still exist in our election ecosystem," says Morgan Ryan, an organizer of the r00tz Asylum and adviser with the University of Chicago's Cyber Policy Initiative. "The more they know, the more exposure they gain, the more they can contribute and be civically engaged. This is about education and finding solutions."
Campaign finance portals represent a point in which campaigns and candidates must interact with the secretary of state or other election official online, Ryan explains. They've been "relatively unexplored to date," she adds, and absent from the larger discussion on election security despite a critical role in election infrastructure. The public relies on secretary of state or Federal Election Commission websites as factual sources; if financial disclosure reports can be manipulated, who can we trust?
This is why r00tz Asylum organizers are adding a new challenge to teach kids how fake news can spread online, tying the hacking of websites to a social media disinformation campaign.
The hacking station and disinformation campaign challenge will be side-by-side in the r00tz village, Ryan explains. As kids from the election hacking station manipulate financial disclosure pages, those changes will be highlighted on a projector at the disinformation station. There, kids can view the fraudulent data and use it to create social media campaigns. They'll be able to use some of the same "bot" methods used by Russian hackers in election interference.
News of this year's r00tz challenge arrives the same day Robert Mueller, former special counsel for the US Department of Justice, testifies on Capitol Hill about Russia's interference in the 2016 US elections. The Mueller report found hackers used SQL injection to hack real election sites, which Ryan says taught r00tz its 2018 challenge "was squarely on point." R00tz had received skepticism about whether its synthetic sites accurately represented real state websites.
When Russian hackers employed SQL injection to breach election websites, they did far more than deface the sites, as r00tz participants did in 2018. After breaching the sites, they accessed voter registration databases — a far more malicious act, Ryan said in a statement, given arguments said voter registration databases were air-gapped or could not be accessed via the Internet.
The synthetic campaign finance portals for the 2019 challenge are designed and built by Aries Security. Founder and CEO Brian Markus previously adapted his Capture the Packet simulator so the US Department of Defense could use it training and vetting cybersecurity professionals.
"More than anything, we hope [kids] will see that they are future voters and, therefore, soon to be critical participants in our democracy," Ryan says. "Perhaps if they see they can have an impact and improve not only the infrastructure of our election ecosystem, but truly the bedrock of this democracy, then we've done a good thing."