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Election Websites, Back-End Systems Most at Risk of Cyberattack in Midterms

Both adult and kid hackers demonstrated at DEF CON how the hackable voting machine may be the least of our worries in the 2018 elections.

Two 11-year-old budding hackers last week at DEF CON in Las Vegas used SQL injection attack code to break into a replica of the Florida Secretary of State's website within 15 minutes, altering vote count reports on the site.

Meanwhile, further down the hall in the adult Voting Machine Hacking Village at Caesars Palace, one unidentified hacker spent four hours trying to break into a replica database that housed the real, publicly available state of Ohio voter registration roll. He got as far as the secured server — penetrating two layers of firewalls with a Khali Linux pen testing tool — but in the end was unable to grab the data from the database, which included names and birthdates of registered voters.

"He got to the secure file server but didn't know how to write the query to pull the data out," says Alon Nachmany, solution engineer with Cyberbit, which ran the voter registration database simulation. That he got as close to the data as he did was no small feat, however.

"He got very far, but he didn't have the skill needed to pull the file itself," Nachmany says.

The setup, using Cyberbit's training and simulation platform for cyber ranges, was designed to mimic a typical county election system — with a web application server on a DMZ behind a firewall and a secure file server sitting behind its own firewall — but was created more for a red-team training scenario, says Bash Kazi, a Cyberbit partner who built it. "We used a more sophisticated network and attack scenario that somebody would have to much more training to hack," he says.

While the election-office simulation challenge proved to be too much of one for most takers at the voting system hacking event, security experts say that these and other Web-based systems, such as states' election-reporting websites and candidate websites, are the most likely (and easy) targets of attackers for the fall midterms.

That's not to say voting machines are not easy marks: hackers successfully cracked into at least nine different machines in the Village this year, including voting machines, tablets, and e-pollbooks, with buffer overflows, stored passwords, and a lack of encryption, for example. It's just simpler for a remote hacker such as a nation-state to penetrate a public-facing website to DDoS it, deface it, alter information (such as changing vote count data or polling place information), or access sensitive data stored on its back-end servers than to tamper with a voting machine.

DEF CON and Black Hat founder Jeff Moss says this year's Village represented an evolution from pure voting machine hacking in 2017 to moving toward election systems and infrastructure. "We're working from the edges," Moss says.

"Last year was the big splash. We're hoping now the that the 'oohs' and 'aahs' are over, we can now start digging into" other more serious security flaws in election systems, he says. "There's still work to be done."

Jake Braun, co-founder and organizer of the DEF CON Voting Village, says including the kids' portion of DEF CON, R00tz Asylum, in the voting and election hacking events wasn't meant to be a "gotcha" moment. "The most vulnerable part [of the election system] are these websites," he says. "The ultimate fake news is changing election results."

Emmett Brewer, aka @p0wnyb0y, gave himself all of the vote counts, and then tweeted: "I think I won the Florida midterms." He was first to crack the site, in 10 minutes, followed five minutes later by Audrey, who was able to change the vote counts on the Florida Division of Elections replica site. Brewer, Audrey, and other kid hackers in R00tz were given a handout on SQL injection and how to use it. 

The replica Secretary of State websites and software were set up by Aries Security, whose founder and CEO, Brian Markus, previously converted his Capture the Flag simulator for the US Department of Defense's cybersecurity training operations.

But DEF CON wouldn't be DEF CON without a bit of controversy: as the world's largest hacker conference kicked off last week, the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) issued a public statement panning the Voting Village. "Our main concern with the approach taken by DEFCON is that it utilizes a pseudo environment which in no way replicates state election systems, networks or physical security. Providing conference attendees with unlimited physical access to voting machines, most of which are no longer in use, does not replicate accurate physical and cyber protections established by state and local governments before and on Election Day," NASS said in its statement.

NASS also said allowing hackers to hack "mock" election office networks and voter registration databases isn't realistic. "It would be extremely difficult to replicate these systems since many states utilize unique networks and custom-built databases with new and updated security protocols," the association said.

But NASS didn't dispute potential website weaknesses, however, adding that those sites only provide unofficial and "preliminary" results and have no physical or virtual link to vote-counting systems, so they can't alter actual vote-count results.

Even so, experts say malicious hackers could wreak chaos and confusion and instill distrust of the election outcomes if they tamper with election-related websites in the run-up to the elections or on Election Day.

Website security analyst Jessica Ortega of SiteLock says website hacking is getting missed amid the wave of voting machine vulnerabilities. "People don't realize what a weapon it can be," she says. "It's almost impossible to impact a legitimate vote count at scale, but you can sow distrust and chaos by defacing a polling place and associated websites, changing the address or phone number of polling places, and the unofficial results that get reported to the media. It's easy to change a 3 to a 6" in a tally, for example, she says.

Ortega says few local municipalities have DDoS mitigation protections in place. "They don't even have proper infrastructure for legitimate traffic," she says, pointing to a recent special election where a county website went down for two hours merely due to high and legitimate traffic, not a DDoS attack.

Paul Gagliardi, former contractor for a US intelligence agency and currently a principal threat researcher at Security ScoreCard, says the entire election ecosystem must be secured, not just voting machines. Funding for state and local IT elections for the most part is relatively low and all about functionality first and security "as an afterthought," he says. "Hopefully, that changes."

But DEF CON organizer Braun and others concur that efforts to uncover and address security issues with the election infrastructure overall as well as more intersection between the security community and federal, state, and local officials, didn't come soon enough for the midterms. "It's going to be hard to do much for 2018. The goal is before 2020," Braun says, including more federal funding for election security.

Cyberattacks in Progress
Meantime, Russian nation-state hackers and other potential attackers already have been targeting systems. California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, who headlined a panel at DEF CON, told Dark Reading attempts to attack state election systems "continues" and goes "up and down."

Padilla said in his opening remarks that while he understood where his colleagues "were coming from" in the NASS statement given the pressures on them to uphold election integrity and security, the first he heard about the statement was when he arrived in Vegas. "We're trying to strike the right balance of cybersecurity and integrity with confidence in the systems," he said. "I'm here to listen and learn" from experts at DEF CON, he added.

Also on the panel with Padilla were Jeanette Manfra, US Department of Homeland Security assistant secretary of cybersecurity and communications; Noah Praetz, director of elections in Cook County, Ill.; Neal Kelley, chief of elections and registrar of voters for Orange County, Calif.; and Amber McReynolds, director of elections for the city and county of Denver, Colo.

Orange County's Kelley reported activity similar to that in 2016. "We're constantly seeing hits against our firewall: scans. So that level of activity continues like it was in 2016. We haven't seen that decline," he told Dark Reading. "Just the same level of standing as we were seeing" in 2016, he said.

Security experts say Russia and other attackers likely have been quietly attacking election systems for some time as part of their campaign to attempt to disrupt the US elections in some way. "I assume most of these things are already in progress," says Gagliardi. "They don't happen overnight. I'm confident we'll see more" activity, he says.

DEF CON plans to publish a final report on all of the Voting Hacking Village findings.

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Kelly Jackson Higgins is Executive Editor at She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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User Rank: Apprentice
8/21/2018 | 12:05:24 PM
Seems like a lot of effort for little gain
Rigging votes in elections just favors one set of idiots over another set. At the end of the day you get the same number of idiots. What's the point?
User Rank: Apprentice
8/17/2018 | 2:28:16 PM
Re: Hacking?
Yes, it's really concerning actually.
User Rank: Apprentice
8/15/2018 | 11:13:17 AM
Re: Hacking?
Persistence, methodologies, and desire are indeed factors but don't forget,  insider threats are a real and often underestimated phenomena.   
Kelly Jackson Higgins
Kelly Jackson Higgins,
User Rank: Strategist
8/15/2018 | 10:21:05 AM
Re: Hacking?
Right. That's the point of the article--how sowing chaos by hacking the websites & front-end election-related systems is more of a risk than a hacked voting machine.
User Rank: Strategist
8/15/2018 | 9:32:15 AM
I read the article, and understand the sensationalism of the headline, but in order for the hackers to hack the voting machines themselves they would have to be hard wired in.  Hacking the voter registration website and using that data to send propaganda to voters and hacking the actual voting booths are separate items.  This is not to say that the participants are not smart enough to keep trying to figure it out.  
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