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NYT Report Details Growing Threat of Ransomware Attacks Ahead of the Election

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  • Tyler Technologies, a software vendor that election officials use to collect and share election results, was recently the victim of a ransomware attack, though details about the attack remain largely unknown.
  • A New York Times report claims Tyler Technologies is one of nearly 1,000 voting systems or groups across the country that have been subject to a hack over the past year. Many of those hacks were conducted by Russian criminal groups. 
  • The Times‘ report details that the United States is very vulnerable to the growing threats of hacking in the election right now as the spread of misinformation and distrust within the country’s political climate already runs rampant.
  • The report indicates that the U.S. is particularly vulnerable to a perception hack, which would involve a hacker spreading misinformation to create distrust about the election results. The FBI has issued warnings about the potential spread of election misinformation in the days after November 3.

Attack at Tyler Technologies

As Election Day looms closer and closer, threats of ransomware attacks are growing larger, according to a recent report from The New York Times

The report indicates that there have been nearly 1,000 attacks against voting systems across the United States over the past year, many of which were conducted by Russian criminal groups. Right now, it is unclear if all of these were traditional ransomware attacks where hackers were simply seeking fast cash, or if they posed a serious threat to the 2020 election. 

One recent attack was lodged against Tyler Technologies, a Texas-based software vendor that election officials use to collect and share election results. Tyler has not released details about the hack, so it is unclear who was behind it or what the purpose of the attack was. Reuters obtained an email the company sent to its customers, which simply explained that there had been a “security incident involving unauthorized access to our internal phone and information technology systems by an unknown third party.”

The Times said it initially looked like an ordinary ransomware attack, but clients later saw outsiders trying to gain access to their systems, raising concern that there could be something larger at play. 

“That has been the fear haunting federal officials for a year now,” the report’s authors, Nicole Perlroth and David E. Sangerthat, wrote. “That in the days leading up to the election, or in its aftermath, ransomware groups will try to freeze voter registration data, election poll books or the computer systems of the secretaries of the state who certify election results.”

Threat of Perception Hacks

Among the potential threats ransomware attacks and hacking pose, the Times noted the specific harm “perception hacks” could have on the United States. The outlet describes these hacks as ransomware attacks that could particularly happen in battleground states and could “create the impression that voters everywhere would not be able to cast their ballots or that the ballots could not be accurately counted.”

“On election night there would be no faster way to create turmoil than altering the reporting of the vote — even if the vote itself was free of fraud,” Perlroth and Sangerthat wrote. 

“That would be a classic perception hack: If Mr. Trump was erroneously declared a winner, for example, and then the vote totals appeared to change, it would be easy to claim someone was fiddling with the numbers.”

These kinds of hacks might only be aided by the fact that President Donald Trump himself has been spreading misinformation about mail-in voting and casting doubt on the election results should he not win. According to the Times, officials fear his unfounded comments about Democrats cheating in the election could even be a signal to hackers, telling them to create just enough incidents to support his false claims of fraud. 

The country’s current political climate creates the perfect storm for Americans being vulnerable to perception hacks. Results of the election will likely take days to be counted, and if Americans are unprepared for the wait, they may be unwilling to accept the final toll.

James Shires, a researcher at the Atlantic Center’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative, spoke to MIT’s Technology Review about the vulnerable position the country is in right now when it comes to any type of hack on the election. Shires compared a potential hack in the U.S. 2020 election to a hack that previously happened in France’s presidential election, noting that America’s response would be very different from France’s. 

“The effect of a hacking operation really comes from the underlying political context and in that case the US is far worse now than it was in 2016,” Shires explained.

“If you look at the Macron leaks, which happened shortly before the French president was elected, a lot of things from the party were put online. French media got together, the candidate communicated, and they agreed not to publish stories based on these leaks before the election. There is a lot of trust and community spirit in the French media and political environment. That is clearly not the case in the US at the moment.”

What is Being Done About These Threats?

Because the impact of any potential hack could be severe and sow discord throughout the already divided country, the FBI has warned that in the days after the election, the public could see “disinformation that includes reports of voter suppression, cyberattacks targeting election infrastructure, voter or ballot fraud, and other problems intended to convince the public of the elections’ illegitimacy.”

As for efforts to prevent these attacks from happening, some officials have said that progress is being made. However, the Times reported that in the first two weeks of September alone, seven American government entities had been hit with ransomware and had their data stolen.

“The chance of a local government not being hit while attempting to manage the upcoming and already ridiculously messy election would seem to be very slim,” Brett Callow, a threat analyst at a security firm called Emsisoft told the Times.

See what others are saying: (New York Times) (Reuters) (Technology Review)

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Medical Workers Sign Letter Urging Spotify to Combat Misinformation, Citing Joe Rogan

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The letter accused Spotify of “enabling its hosted media to damage public trust in scientific research.”


Doctors and Medical Professionals Sign Letter to Spotify

A group of 270 doctors, scientists, and other medical workers signed an open letter to Spotify this week urging the audio platform to implement a misinformation policy, specifically citing false claims made on the “Joe Rogan Experience” podcast. 

Rogan has faced no shortage of backlash over the last year for promoting vaccine misinformation on his show, which airs exclusively on Spotify. Most recently, he invited Dr. Robert Malone on a Dec. 31 episode that has since been widely criticized by health experts. 

Dr. Malone was banned from Twitter for promoting COVID-19 misinformation. According to the medical experts who signed the letter, he “used the JRE platform to further promote numerous baseless claims, including several falsehoods about COVID-19 vaccines and an unfounded theory that societal leaders have ‘hypnotized’ the public.”

“Notably, Dr. Malone is one of two recent JRE guests who has compared pandemic policies to the Holocaust,” the letter continued. “These actions are not only objectionable and offensive, but also medically and culturally dangerous.”

Joe Rogan’s History of COVID-19 Misinformation

Rogan sparked swift criticism himself in the spring of 2021 when he discouraged young people from taking the COVID-19 vaccine. He also falsely equated mRNA vaccines to “gene therapy” and incorrectly stated that vaccines cause super mutations of the virus. He took ivermectin after testing positive for the virus in September, despite the fact that the drug is not approved as a treatment for COVID.

“By allowing the propagation of false and societally harmful assertions, Spotify is enabling its hosted media to damage public trust in scientific research and sow doubt in the credibility of data-driven guidance offered by medical professionals,” the doctors and medical workers wrote. 

“We are calling on Spotify to take action against the mass-misinformation events which continue to occur on its platform,” they continued. “With an estimated 11 million listeners per episode, JRE is the world’s largest podcast and has tremendous influence. Though Spotify has a responsibility to mitigate the spread of misinformation on its platform, the company presently has no misinformation policy.”

Rolling Stone was the first outlet to report on the letter from the medical professionals. Dr. Katrine Wallace, an epidemiologist at the University of Illinois Chicago, was among the signees. She told the magazine that Rogan is “a menace to public health.”

“These are fringe ideas not backed in science, and having it on a huge platform makes it seem there are two sides to this issue,” she said. “And there are really not.”

Spotify had not responded to the letter as of Thursday.

See what others are saying: (Rolling Stone) (Deadline) (Insider)

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Data Shows Omicron May be Peaking in the U.S.

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In some cities that were first hit by the surge, new cases are starting to flatten and decline.


New Cases Flattening

After weeks of recording-breaking cases driven by the highly infectious omicron variant, public health officials say that new COVID infections seem to be slowing in the parts of the country that were hit the hardest earlier on.

Following a more than twentyfold rise in December, cases in New York City have flattened out in recent days. 

New infections have even begun to fall slightly in some states, like Maryland and New Jersey. In Boston, the levels of COVID in wastewater — which has been a top indicator of case trends in the past — have dropped by nearly 40% since the first of the year.

Overall, federal data has shown a steep decline in COVID-related emergency room visits in the Northeast, and the rest of the country appears to be following a similar track.

Data from other countries signals the potential for a steep decline in cases following the swift and unprecedented surge.

According to figures from South Africa, where the variant was first detected, cases rose at an incredibly shocking rate for about a month but peaked quickly in mid-December. Since then, new infections have plummeted by around 70%.

In the U.K., which has typically been a map for how U.S. cases will trend, infections are also beginning to fall after peaking around New Year’s and then flattening for about a week.

Concerns Remain 

Despite these recent trends, experts say it is still too early to say if cases in the U.S. will decline as rapidly as they did in South Africa and the parts of the U.K. that were first hit. 

While new infections may seem to be peaking in the cities that saw the first surges, caseloads continue to climb in most parts of the country. 

Meanwhile, hospitals are overwhelmed and health resources are still strained because of the high volume of cases hitting all at once.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (The Washington Post) (The Wall Street Journal)

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COVID-Driven School Closures Top Record Highs, But Many Remain Open

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While some districts have implemented protective measures, many teachers say they fall short.


Schools Respond to Omicron Surge

U.S. COVID cases, driven by the omicron variant, are continuously topping new record highs, posing difficult questions for schools resuming after winter break.

According to Burbio, a data firm that tracks school closures, at least 5,409 public schools canceled classes or moved to remote learning by the end of last week due to COVID — more than triple the number at the end of December.

That is still only a fraction of the nation’s 130,000 schools, and many of the biggest school districts in the country are still insisting that students come into the classroom.

Los Angeles, which is home to the second-biggest district, is requiring that students at least test negative before they return to school this week.

In the biggest district of New York City, classes have already resumed following winter break. Although the city has said it will double random tests and send home more kits, students were not required to provide negative results.

Teachers Protest In-Person Learning

Teachers in other major districts have protested the local government’s decisions to stay open.

One of the most closely watched battles is in Chicago, where students on Monday missed their fourth consecutive day of school due to a feud between the Chicago Teachers Union and Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D).

Last week, the union voted to return to remote learning in defiance of a city-wide order mandating they teach in-person, citing inadequate COVID-19 protections. Lightfoot claimed the conditions were fine and that students were safe, despite record surges, instead opting to cancel classes altogether while the fight plays out.

On Sunday, the union said it was “still far apart” from making any kind of agreement with public school officials after Lightfoot rejected their demands.

Lightfoot, for her part, has said she remains “hopeful” a deal could be reached, but she also stirred up the union by accusing teachers of staging an “illegal walkout” and claiming they “abandoned their posts and they abandoned kids and their families.”

Meanwhile, teachers in other school districts have begun to emulate the tactics in Chicago.

On Friday, teachers in Oakland, California staged a “sick-out,” promoting 12 schools serving thousands of students to close.

See what others are saying: (The Chicago Tribune) (CNN) (The New York Times)

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