Cyber firm sows chaos in election hack simulation
- By Derek B. Johnson
- Nov 05, 2019
The fictional City of Adversaria was ground zero for an Election Day security training exercise pitting law enforcement officials attempting to maintain order during an election against "K-OS," a mysterious cyber group aiming to disrupt and undermine voter confidence.
The simulated battle was part of Operation Blackout, a tabletop exercise hosted by Cybereason Nov. 5 to test how federal officials might react to a dedicated attack on election day. The company invited officials from real federal agencies like FBI and the Department of Homeland Security to sit in on both the "Blue" team representing law enforcement and "Red" team representing K-OS, to learn how to better protect election infrastructure.
Ari Schwartz, former senior director of cybersecurity at the National Security Council under President Barack Obama, helped adjudicate the exercise and told FCW afterwards that in a real election, much of the planning by defenders would be gamed out in the weeks and months leading up to election day, but that unforeseen attack vectors are always out there and can throw a wrench into the gears of the best laid plans.
Much like a board game, the exercise played out over multiple turns, with both teams deploying resources while reacting to each other's moves and dealing with late-breaking, unforeseen events. Because there is already a rich body of research on attacking voting machines and other election infrastructure, company officials told attackers to focus on other ways to undermine confidence in election results, such as disinformation operations and voter suppression techniques.
While defenders must play a constant guessing game and deploy assets across a wide attack surface, members of Team Red said they were able to move quicker, use assets more strategically and keep defenders on their heels.
"For a lot of these [attacks]. there's nothing you can do," said consultant Elon Pavlov, who participated as a red team K-OS agent. "The information warfare space is too vast."
Their attack plan took place over three phases. The first, a disinformation campaign played out over social media, used deep-fake technology to create a video depicting sexual scandal around one party's candidate. While Team Blue had preexisting relationships between law enforcement and social media platforms to take down inauthentic election-related content, it was of limited value because no one could immediately assess whether the video is real or not,
Deep-fake researchers would probably debunk it eventually, but attackers were only interested in influencing voters during a tight time window before they went to the polls. That exact scenario was floated by Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fl.) at an Atlantic Council event earlier this year.
The second wave involved deploying roaming Stingray devices near party campaign headquarters' and other places to ping nearby cell phones and intercept communications.
At one point throughout the exercise, Team Blue picked up chatter on online hacker forums discussing the possible use of stingrays. Not knowing how they would be used, defenders quickly moved to set up Femtocell base stations around cell towers. Femtocells are traditionally used to disrupt cell service in a surrounding area, but in this case defenders were preemptively deploying them to boost cell signals in the event K-OS used their stingrays to cut off phone access and cause chaos. As a precaution, they also told law enforcement to switch to encrypted radio communications for the rest of the day.
While disrupting local cell service was one option available to attackers, Team Red instead chose to use their Stingrays to intercept cell signals, pulling communications from election officials and refashioning their dialogue into deep-fake audio. Poll workers in certain precincts later received phone calls from their "supervisor" telling them their paperless voting machines have been hacked and that they needed to reset them, wiping out thousands of recorded votes with no audit trail. Even a fraction of poll workers falling for the trick would help undermine overall results.
The final asset deployed by attackers was perhaps the most far-fetched but also the most creative. Adversaria had advanced self-driving vehicle technology that, while not used today, could very well become the norm in the near future. K-OS operatives were able to hack into 50 cars and five buses. Defenders and event organizers initially thought they might be used to disrupt the flow of traffic, but red players had far more diabolical intentions in mind.
As the exercise entered its final hours, members of Team Blue expressed satisfaction with their performance and the way they had chosen to deploy their resources. That satisfaction evaporated soon after they received word a handful of hijacked self-driving buses had crashed into lines of civilians at three different polling stations. The sheer brazenness of the move caught defenders off guard.
"That's a new one," mused Danielle Wood, a Cybereason employee and blue team member.
With nearly 200 civilians injured and more than 30 dead, the introduction of a mass casualty event at polling places pushed an already depressed voter turnout teetering over the edge, forcing Blue Team to throw in the towel. They called for a reset of the election and arrested the ringleaders as they attempted to flee the country, but their objective of maintaining integrity of the election day has failed.
However, Team Red's bus attack was too effective. Because they were supposed to stay covert enough to undermine the election but maintain its results, creating what amounted to a terrorist attack resulting in the reset of election day was deemed a failure. While no one would call the day a victory for defenders, the ability to push pause, regroup and hold voting another day was deemed a better alternative than allowing the results to stand.
Sam Curry, CTO at Cybereason, said he hoped that the true winners of the exercise were the American electorate.
"The real victory of course is if [participants] leave here and it means something or makes a difference," he said.
Derek B. Johnson is a senior staff writer at FCW, covering governmentwide IT policy, cybersecurity and a range of other federal technology issues.
Prior to joining FCW, Johnson was a freelance technology journalist. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, GoodCall News, Foreign Policy Journal, Washington Technology, Elevation DC, Connection Newspapers and The Maryland Gazette.
Johnson has a Bachelor's degree in journalism from Hofstra University and a Master's degree in public policy from George Mason University. He can be contacted at [email protected], or follow him on Twitter @derekdoestech.
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