Posts

In Discussion of Unmasking Admiral Rogers Gets Closer to Admitting Types of Section 702 Cybersecurity Use

Last Friday, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, Director of NSA Mike Rogers, and FBI Director Christopher Wray did an event at Heritage Foundation explaining why we need Section 702 and pretending that we need it without reasonable reforms. I attended Wray’s talk — and even got my question on cybersecurity asked, which he largely dodged (I’ll have more about two troubling things Wray said later). But I missed Rogers’ talk and am just now catching up on it.

In it, he describes a use of Section 702 that goes further than NSA usually does to describe how the authority is used in cybersecurity.

So what are some examples where we’ll unmask? Companies. Cybersecurity. So we’ll report that US company 1 was hacked by the following country, here’s how they got in, here’s where they are, here’s what they’re doing. Part of our responsibility on the US government side is the duty to warn. So how do you warn US company 1 if you don’t even know who US company 1 is? So one of the reasons we do unmasking is, so for example we can take protective to ensure this information is provided to the appropriate individuals.

What Rogers describes is an active hack, by a nation-state (which suggests that rule may not have changed since the 2015 report based off 2012 Snowden documents that said NSA could only use 702 against nation-state hackers). The description is not necessarily limited to emails, the type of data NSA likes to pretend it collects in upstream (though it could involve phishing). And the description even includes what is going on at the victim company.

Rogers explains that the NSA would unmask that information so as to be able to warn the victim — something that (via the FBI) happened with the DNC, but something which didn’t happen with a number of other election related hacks.

Of course, Reality Winner is facing prison for having made this clear. The FISA-derived report she is accused of leaking shows how the masking works in practice.

In the case of VR Systems, the targeted company described, it’s not entirely clear whether NSA (though FBI) warned them directly or simply warned the states that used it. But warnings, complete with their name, were issued. And then leaked to the press, presumably by people who aren’t facing prison time.

In any case, this is a thin description of NSA’s use of 702 on cybersecurity investigations. But more detail in unclassified public than has previously been released.

 

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

How to Read the DHS Targeted States Information

Yesterday, DHS informed the states that had their registration databases targeted by Russian hackers last year. There has been an outright panic about the news since states started revealing they got notice, so I thought it worthwhile to describe what we should take away from the notice and subsequent reporting:

  • “Most” of the 21 targeted states were not successfully hacked
  • Some targeted states were successfully hacked
  • Not all swing states were targeted, not all targeted states are swing states
  • These hacks generally do not involve vote tallying
  • These hacks do not involve hacking voting machines
  • These hacks do not involve other voter suppression methods — whether by GOP or Russians
  • Notice needs to improve

The AP has done good work tracking down which states got notice they were targeted, identifying the 21 targeted states. Those targeted states were:

  1. Alabama
  2. Alaska
  3. Arizona
  4. California
  5. Colorado
  6. Connecticut
  7. Delaware
  8. Florida
  9. Illinois
  10. Iowa
  11. Maryland
  12. Minnesota
  13. North Dakota
  14. Ohio
  15. Oklahoma
  16. Oregon
  17. Pennsylvania
  18. Texas
  19. Virginia
  20. Washington
  21. Wisconsin

 

“Most” of the 21 targeted states were not successfully hacked

This list of 21 states does not mean that Russians successfully hacked 21 states. All it means is Russians probed 21 states. And the AP says “most” were not successful. WI, WA, and MN have said the attacks on them were not successful.

Thus, for “most” of these states, the impact is the same as the reports that Russians were attempting, unsuccessfully, to phish engineers in the energy industry: it is cause for concern, but unless new intelligence becomes available, it means that for those “most” states these probes could not affect the election.

Some targeted states were successfully probed

Of course, by saying that “most” attacks were not successful, you’re admitting that “some” were. We only know IL and AZ to have successfully been breached.

This means this story may not be done yet: reporters, especially state based ones, are going to have to get their voting officials to provide details about the attacks and it may take some FOIA work.

Mind you, a successful hack still doesn’t mean that the election was affected (as I believe to be the understanding with respect to AZ, though there is more dispute about IL). It might be that the hackers just succeeded in getting into the database. It may be that they succeeded only in downloading the voter registration database — which in many states, is readily available, and which is nowhere near the most interesting available data for targeting in any case.

In my opinion, the most effective way to affect the outcome of the election via voter registration databases is not to download and use it for targeting, but instead, to alter the database, selectively eliminating or voiding the registration of voters in targeted precincts (which of course means the hackers would need to come in with some notion of targets). Even changing addresses would have the effect of creating lines at the polls.

Altering the database would have the same effect as an existing GOP tactic does. In many states, GOP secretaries of state very aggressively purge infrequent voters. Particularly for transient voters (especially students, but poorer voters are also more likely to move from year to year), a voter may not get notice they’ve been purged. This has the effect of ensuring that the purged voter cannot vote, and also has the effect of slowing the voting process for voters who are registered.  In other words, that’s the big risk here — that hackers will do things to make it impossible for some voters to vote, and harder for others to do so.

Not all swing states were targeted, not all targeted states are swing states

The list of targeted states is very curious. Some targeted states are obvious swing states — WI, PA, FL, and VA were four of the five states where the election was decided. But MI is not on there, and NC, another close state, is not either.

In addition, a lot of these states are solidly red, like AL and OK. A lot of them are equally solidly blue, like CA and CT. So if the Russians had a grand scheme here, it was not (just) to flip swing states.

These hacks generally do not involve vote tallying

DHS has said that these hacks do not involve vote tallying. That means these disclosed probes, even assuming they were successful, are not going to explain what may seem to be abnormalities in particular states’ tallies.

These hacks do not involve hacking voting machines

Nor do these hacks involve hacking voting machines (which is covered, in any case, by the denial that it involves vote tallying).

Yes, voting machines are incredibly vulnerable. Yes, it would be child’s play for a hacker — Russian or American — to hack individual voting machines. With limited exceptions, there been no real assessment of whether individual machines got hacked (though it’d generally be easier to affect a local race that way than the presidential).

These hacks do not involve other voter suppression methods — whether by GOP or Russians

This list of 21 targeted states does not represent the known universe of Russian voting-related hacking.

It does not, for example, include the targeting of voting infrastructure contractors, such as VR Systems (which Reality Winner faces prison for disclosing). There’s good reason to at least suspect that the VR Systems hack may have affected NC’s outcome by causing the most Democratic counties to shift to paper voting books, resulting in confusion and delays in those counties that didn’t exist in more Republican ones.

And they don’t include any Russian social media-related support or suppression, which we’re getting closer to having proof of right now.

Importantly, don’t forget that we know Republicans were engaging in all these techniques as well, with far better funding. Russians didn’t need to hack WI and NC given how much organized suppression of voters of color took place. Republican secretaries of state had the power to purge voters on trumped up excuses without engaging in any hacking.

Do not let the focus on Russian tampering distract from the far more effective Republican suppression.

Notice needs to be improved

Finally, the other big story about this is that some states only got notice they were targeted yesterday, some even after having partnered with DHS to assess their voting infrastructure.

DHS has used classification, in part, to justify this silence, which is an issue the Intelligence Committees are trying to address in next year’s authorization. But that’s particularly hard to justify that many of these same states have run elections since.

Mind you, we’re likely to see this debate move to the next level — to demanding that state officials disclose full details about their state’s infrastructure to citizens.

In any case, if we’re to be able to use democratic pressure to ensure the infrastructure of democracy gets better protected, we’re going to need more notice.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

Report from North Carolina Makes Reality Winner Leak Far More Important

According to NPR, the poll books in six precincts in Durham County, NC, went haywire on election day, which led the entire county to shift to paper poll books.

When people showed up in several North Carolina precincts to vote last November, weird things started to happen with the electronic systems used to check them in.

“Voters were going in and being told that they had already voted — and they hadn’t,” recalls Allison Riggs, an attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.

The electronic systems — known as pollbooks — also indicated that some voters had to show identification, even though they did not.

[snip]

At first, the county decided to switch to paper pollbooks in just those precincts to be safe. But Bowens says the State Board of Elections & Ethics Enforcement got involved “and determined that it would be better to have uniformity across all of our 57 precincts and we went paper pollbooks across the county.”

That move caused a whole new set of problems: Voting was delayed — up to an hour and a half — in a number of precincts as pollworkers waited for new supplies. With paper pollbooks, they had to cut voters’ names out and attach them to a form before people could get their ballots.

The company that provided the software for the poll books is VR Systems — the company that the document Reality Winner leaked showed had been probed by Russian hackers.

But Susan Greenhalgh, who’s part of an election security group called Verified Voting, worried that authorities underreacted. She was monitoring developments in Durham County when she saw a news report that the problem pollbooks were supplied by a Florida company named VR Systems.

“My stomach just dropped,” says Greenhalgh.

She knew that in September, the FBI had warned Florida election officials that Russians had tried to hack one of their vendor’s computers. VR Systems was rumored to be that company.

Because of the publicity surrounding the VR targeting — thanks to the document leaked by Winner — NC has now launched an investigation.

Lawson says the state first learned of the hack attempt when The Intercept, an online news site, published its story detailing Russian attempts to hack VR Systems. The leaked report said hackers then sent emails to local election offices that appeared to come from VR — but which actually contained malicious software.

[snip]

So now, months after the election, the state has launched an investigation into what happened in Durham County. It has secured the pollbooks that displayed the inaccurate information so forensic teams can examine them.

So this may be the first concrete proof that Russian hackers affected the election. But we’ll only find out of that’s true thanks to Winner’s leak.

Except she can’t raise that at trial.

Last week, Magistrate Judge Brian Epps imposed a protection order in her case that prohibits her or her team from raising any information from a document the government deems to be classified, even if that document has been in the public record. That includes the document she leaked.

The protective order is typical for leak cases. Except in this case, it covers information akin to information that appeared in other outlets without eliciting a criminal prosecution. And more importantly, Winner could now point to an important benefit of her leak, if only she could point to the tie between her leak and this investigation in North Carolina.

With the protection order, she can’t.

Note one more implication of this story.

In addition to the Presidential election last year, North Carolina had a surprisingly close Senate election, in which Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Richard Burr beat Deborah Ross by 6%. Admittedly, the margin was large — over 200,000 votes. But Durham County is the most Democratic county in the state.

Burr, of course, is presiding over one of the four investigations into the Russian hacks. And while I don’t think this story, yet, says that Burr won because of the hack, if the investigations shows VR was hacked in the state and it affected throughput in the most Democratic county, then it means Burr benefitted as clearly from the Russian hacks as Trump did.

The SSCI investigation has been going better than I had imagined. But this seems like a conflict of interest.

Update: I originally said the entire state switched to paper pollbooks. That’s incorrect: just Durham County did, which makes the issue even more important.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.