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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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Soldier Charged With Assault After Shoving Black Man in Viral Video

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  • Authorities charged Army soldier Jonathan Pentland with third-degree assault and battery on Wednesday after a viral video showed him shoving a Black man while yelling at him to leave a South Carolina neighborhood.
  • Many people, including dozens who protested outside Pentland’s home this week, condemned the confrontation as another instance of someone being attacked for “walking while Black.”
  • Pentland and others claimed the unidentified man was picking a fight with neighbors, which the man denied, but police said nothing that may have happened earlier justified Pentland’s actions.
  • If convicted, Pentland faces a $500 fine and 30 days in jail.

Viral Video

A U.S. soldier was charged with assault on Wednesday after a video that circulated online showed him yelling at and shoving a Black man in a South Carolina neighborhood.

Footage of the April 8 incident was posted to social media Monday. It shows the Army soldier, Jonathan Pentland, confronting the unidentified man and telling him to leave the neighborhood. 

The other man explains that he’s just walking through the area and doing nothing wrong, but Pentland becomes increasingly aggressive. “You better walk away,” he shouts at the man after shoving him.

“You either walk away, or I’m gonna carry your ass out of here,” he continues before adding, “You’re in the wrong neighborhood motherf*ker. Get out!”

The man then tries to tell Pentland that he lives in the neighborhood, and Pentland then asks for his address, which he does not give.

The confrontation continues with Pentland cursing and getting in the man’s face. As he does so, the man says that Pentland smells drunk. 

It’s unclear what exactly led up to the confrontation, but in the video, a woman off-camera says the man “picked a fight with some random young lady that’s one of our neighbors.”

“I don’t even know who she is. Nobody picked a fight when someone ran up on me,” the man replies. Another woman off-screen then encourages the man to leave with her, saying, “What’s your name? Come on. You don’t want no trouble.”

Video Triggers Protests Outside Pentland’s Home

After this video spread online, many social media users condemned it as another instance of someone being attacked for “walking while Black.”

In fact, protesters even began demonstrating outside of Penland’s home. Those protests started off peaceful, but deputies were then called after 8 p.m. because unknown individuals vandalized the house. That forced police to shut down access to the area and remove Pentland’s family to another location.

As far as the viral video, deputies were told that the man approached “several neighbors in a threatening manner” and that someone had asked Pentland to “intervene.”

Police did confirm that there are two reports of alleged assault against the unnamed man Pentland shoved that are being investigated. However, they also added that the man has “an underlying medical condition that may explain the behavior exhibited in the alleged incidents.”

Pentland Charged

Either way, police said whatever happened earlier did not justify Pentland’s actions. He was ultimately arrested Wednesday morning and was charged with third-degree assault and battery. He faces a $500 fine and 30 days in jail if convicted.

“We’re not going to let people be bullies in our community,” Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said at a news conference Wednesday. “And if you are, you’re going to answer for it, and that’s what we’ve done in this case.”

On top of that, the Justice Department reportedly was investigating. Pentland’s Commanding General even issued a statement condemning his behavior, adding that Pentland “brought disrespect to @fortjackson our Army and the trust with the public we serve.”

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (ABC News) (Huffpost)

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Texas Students Created Snapchat Group To ‘Slave Trade’ Black Classmates

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  • Freshmen at a Texas high school set up a Snapchat group to pretend to sell their Black classmates. 
  • A screenshot showed the group name being changed from “Slave Trade” with emojis of a Black man, a gun, and a white police officer to “[racial slur] Farm” and then “[racial slur] Auction.”
  • That image also shows a person saying they would spend $100 on a peer while a second student said they would spend $1 on another, adding “would be better if his hair wasn’t so bad.”
  • The school faced backlash for initially describing it as “an incident of cyberbullying and harassment,” without acknowledging the racism. The district later issued a stronger condemnation and said the students were disciplined but did not list specific consequences.

Racist Snapchat Group

Aledo high school students at Daniel Ninth Grade Campus in Northern Texas are making headlines for setting up a Snapchat group to pretend to sell their Black classmates. 

A screenshot reviewed by several local news outlets showed the group name being changed from “Slave Trade” with emojis of a Black man, a gun, and a white police officer to “[racial slur] Farm” and then “[racial slur] Auction.”

That image also shows a person saying they would spend $100 on a peer. A second student said they would spend $1 on another, adding “would be better if his hair wasn’t so bad.”

Screenshot of group chat message via KXAS

At least one student who was mentioned as being “sold” in the chats was later sent screenshots of the conversations.

According to a report from the Star-Telegram reported last week, when the issue was brought to Principal Carolyn Ansley, she sent parents an email that didn’t mention the Snapchat group but only cited “an incident of cyberbullying and harassment.”

That caused frustrations because parents felt the issue of racism wasn’t being addressed or acknowledged.

Mark Grubbs, a father of three former students, told KXAS he was sickened by the students’ actions. Grubbs, who is Black, also said he had taken his children out of the district over other racist incidents in the past.

“My son being called out of his name and what not and it got to the point he didn’t mind fighting and that didn’t sit right with me and my wife. My son was never a fighter,” he said.

District Responds

After the incident garnered media attention, the Aledo Independent School District issued a statement.

The district said it learned of the incident more than two weeks ago and started an investigation that involved law enforcement.

“There is no room for racism or hatred in the Aledo ISD, period,” it added. “Using inappropriate, offensive and racially charged language and conduct is completely unacceptable and is prohibited by district policy.”

District officials spoke with the students responsible as well as their parents, saying they “made it clear that statements and conduct that targets a student because of his or her race is not only prohibited but also has a profound impact on the victims.”

The district also said it assigned disciplinary consequences, though it did not explicitly state what those consequences were or state how many students were involved.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (ABC) (Fort Worth Star-Telegram)

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What You Need To Know About the Johnson & Johnson Vaccine Pause

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  • The CDC and the FDA have issued a joint recommendation to pause distribution of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine amid reports that six women experienced “extremely rare” blood clots after receiving the single-dose shot.
  • The vast majority of the 6.8 million Americans who were given the Johnson & Johnson vaccine have reported minor to no side effects, and no direct link has been established between the vaccine and blood clots at this time. 
  • The two agencies are expected to release updated guidance in the coming days.
  • Several states and cities are now automatically giving the two-dose Pfizer vaccine to people who were scheduled to receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine this week. 

CDC and FDA Recommend J&J Vaccine Halt

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the Food and Drug Administration, released a statement Tuesday recommending a pause on the use of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine.

So far, 6.8 million people in the U.S. have been vaccinated with Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose vaccine, most with zero or only mild side effects.

The updated guidance comes after six women, all between the ages of 18 to 48, experienced what both agencies described as “extremely rare” blood clots six to 13 days after being vaccinated. One of those women has died and another is in critical condition.

Neither the CDC nor the FDA has confirmed that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is the cause of these blood clots; rather, they said this guidance comes “out of an abundance of caution.”

That’s also in line with Johnson & Johnson itself, which said it’s aware of the reports but added that “no clear causal relationship has been established between these rare events.” As a precaution, Johnson & Johnson has also now delayed the rollout of its vaccine in Europe. 

What Happens From Here?

Principal Deputy Director of the CDC Anne Schuchat said further recommendations will come quickly.

FDA Acting Commissioner Janet Woodcock echoed that statement, saying, “We expect it to be a matter of days for this pause.”

Wednesday, a CDC committee will convene to discuss the cases and assess their potential significance.

When asked if the government was overreacting to just six cases out of nearly 7 million vaccinations (a criticism made by some online), Schuchat said the CDC pulled its recommendation specifically because the type of blood clots seen in these 6 women requires special treatment, so “it was of the utmost importance to us to get the word out.”

In the meantime, both agencies are urging Johnson & Johnson vaccine recipients to contact their doctors if they experience any combination of severe headaches, abdominal pain, leg pain, or shortness of breath. 

What If I Had A J&J Appointment?

Both agencies, as well as other health officials, are still urging unvaccinated people to take the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines when available in their area.

The White House’s COVID-19 response coordinator has said that 28 million doses of those vaccines will be made available this week. Notably, that’s more than enough for the country to continue giving 3 million shots a day. 

If you had an appointment scheduled to get the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, you’re likely not completely out of luck.

For example, while D.C. vaccination sites are canceling all Johnson & Johnson appointments between Tuesday and this Saturday, the health department there has said it’ll send out invitations on Wednesday to reschedule.

Similar situations were reported in Virginia and Maryland, though some vaccination sites in Maryland are still honoring existing appointments by automatically giving people Pfizer instead. That’s also a process that is now being conducted in places like New York State and Memphis.

See what others are saying: (Associated Press) (NBC News) (The Washington Post)

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