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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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SAT Drops Subject Tests and Optional Essay Section

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  • The College Board will discontinue SAT subject tests effective immediately and will scrap the optional essay section in June. 
  • The organization cited the coronavirus pandemic as part of the reason for accelerating these changes.
  • Regarding subject tests, the College Board said the other half of the decision rested on the fact that Advanced Placement tests are now more accessible to low-income students and students of color, making subject tests unnecessary. 
  • It also said it plans to launch a digital version of the SAT in the near future, despite failing to implement such a plan last year after a previous announcement.

College Board Ends Subject Tests and Optional Essay

College Board announced Tuesday that it will scrap the SAT’s optional essay section, as well as subject tests.

Officials at the organization cited the COVID-19 pandemic as part of the reason for these changes, saying is has “accelerated a process already underway at the College Board to simplify our work and reduce demands on students.”

The decision was also made in part because Advanced Placement tests, which College Board also administers, are now available to more low-income students and students of color. Thus, College Board has said this makes SAT subject tests unnecessary. 

While subject tests will be phased out for international students, they have been discontinued effective immediately in the U.S. 

Regarding the optional essay, College Board said high school students are now able to express their writing skills in a variety of ways, a factor which has made the essay section less necessary.

With several exceptions, it will be discontinued in June.

The Board Will Implement an Online SAT Test

In its announcement, College Board also said it plans to launch a revised version of the SAT that’s aimed at making it “more flexible” and “streamlined” for students to take the test online.

In April 2020, College Board announced it would be launching a digital SAT test in the fall if schools didn’t reopen. The College Board then backtracked on its plans for a digital test in June, before many schools even decided they would remain closed.

According to College Board, technological challenges led to the decision to postpone that plan.

For now, no other details about the current plan have been released, though more are expected to be revealed in April. 

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (NPR) (The New York Times)

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Biden To Block Trump’s Order Lifting COVID-19 Travel Ban

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  • President Trump issued an executive order Monday lifting a ban on travelers from the Schengen area of Europe, the U.K., Ireland, and Brazil. 
  • Trump said the policy will no longer be needed starting Jan. 26, when the CDC will start requiring all passengers from abroad to present proof of a negative coronavirus test before boarding a flight.
  • The move was cheered by the travel industry; however, incoming White House press secretary Jennifer Psaki warned that Biden’s administration does not intend to lift the travel restrictions. 

Trump Order End To COVID-19 Travel Ban

President Donald Trump issued an executive order Monday ending his administration’s ban on travelers from the Schengen area of Europe, the U.K., Ireland, and Brazil.

That ban was put in place last spring in an effort to curb the spread of coronavirus in the U.S. In his announcement, however, Trump said the policy will no longer be needed starting Jan. 26, when new rules from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention go into effect.

Starting that day, the CDC will require all passengers from abroad to present proof of a negative coronavirus test before boarding a flight.

The recommendation to lift the ban reportedly came from Alex Azar, the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services. According to Trump’s proclamation, “the Secretary reports high confidence that these jurisdictions will cooperate with the United States in the implementation of CDC’s January 12, 2021, order and that tests administered there will yield accurate results.”

It’s worth noting that the ban will stay in place for travelers from Iran and China. Still, Trump’s announcement was generally cheered by members of the travel industry who have been pushing to lift the ban and require preflight testing instead. 

Biden To Block Trump’s Order

Soon after the news broke, the incoming White House press secretary for President-elect Joe Biden, Jennifer Psaki, warned that Biden would block Trump’s order.

“With the pandemic worsening, and more contagious variants emerging around the world, this is not the time to be lifting restrictions on international travel,” she wrote on Twitter.

“On the advice of our medical team, the Administration does not intend to lift these restrictions on 1/26.  In fact, we plan to strengthen public health measures around international travel in order to further mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” she added.

With that, it seems unlikely that Trump’s order will actually take effect. 

It’s also worth noting that this is one of many executive orders Trump has issued just before inauguration day.

Source: Whitehouse.gov/presidential-actions

Some of these orders could soon be overturned once Biden takes office Wednesday. Biden is also expected to roll out his own wave of executive orders in his first 10 days as president.

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

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New COVID-19 Variant Could Become Dominant in the U.S. by March, CDC Warns

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  • The CDC warned Friday that a new highly transmissible COVID-19 variant could become the predominant variant in the United States by March.
  • The strain was first reported in the United Kingdom in December and is now in at least 10 states.
  • The CDC used a modeled trajectory to discover how quickly the variant could spread in the U.S. and said that this could threaten the country’s already overwhelmed healthcare system.

CDC Issues Warning

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned Friday that the new COVID-19 variant could become the predominant variant in the United States by March.

While it is not known to be more deadly, it does spread at a higher rate, which is troubling considering the condition the U.S. is already in. Cases and deaths are already on the rise in nearly every state and globally, 2 million lives have been lost to the coronavirus. 

The variant was first reported in the United Kingdom in mid-December. It is now in 30 countries, including the U.S., where cases have been located in at least ten states. Right now, only 76 cases of this variant have been confirmed in the U.S., but experts believe that number is likely much higher and said it will increase significantly in the coming weeks. It is already a dominant strain in parts of the U.K.

Modeled trajectory shows that growth in the U.S. could be so fast that it dominates U.S. cases just three months into the new year. This could pose a huge threat to our already strained healthcare system.

Mitigating Spread of Variant

“I want to stress that we are deeply concerned that this strain is more transmissible and can accelerate outbreaks in the U.S. in the coming weeks,” said Dr. Jay Butler, deputy director for infectious diseases at the CDC told the New York Times. “We’re sounding the alarm and urging people to realize the pandemic is not over and in no way is it time to throw in the towel.”

The CDC advises that health officials use this time to limit spread and increase vaccination as much as possible in order to mitigate the impact this variant will have. Experts believe that current vaccines will protect against this strain.

“Effective public health measures, including vaccination, physical distancing, use of masks, hand hygiene, and isolation and quarantine, will be essential,” the CDC said in their report.

“Strategic testing of persons without symptoms but at higher risk of infection, such as those exposed to SARS-CoV-2 or who have frequent unavoidable contact with the public, provides another opportunity to limit ongoing spread.”

See what others are saying: (Wall Street Journal) (New York Times) (NBC News)

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