Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Ukraine Election Narrowly Avoided 'Wanton Destruction' from Hackers

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Ukraine Election Narrowly Avoided 'Wanton Destruction' from Hackers

Article excerpt

A three-pronged wave of cyber-attacks aimed at wrecking Ukraine's presidential vote - including an attempt to fake computer vote totals - was narrowly defeated by government cyber experts, Ukrainian officials say.

The still little-known hacks, which surfaced May 22-26, appear to be among the most dangerous cyber-attacks yet deployed to sabotage a national election - and a warning shot for future elections in the US and abroad, political scientists and cyber experts say.

National elections in the Netherlands, Norway, and other nations have seen hackers probe Internet-tied election systems, but never with such destructive abandon, said experts monitoring the Ukraine vote.

"This is the first time we've seen a cyber-hacktivist organization act in a malicious way on such a grand scale to try to wreck a national election," says Joseph Kiniry, an Internet voting systems cyber-security expert. "To hack in and delete everything on those servers is just pillaging, wanton destruction."

That wanton destruction began four days ahead of the national vote, when CyberBerkut, a group of pro-Russia hackers, infiltrated Ukraine's central election computers and deleted key files, rendering the vote-tallying system inoperable. The next day, the hackers declared they had "destroyed the computer network infrastructure" for the election, spilling e-mails and other documents onto the web as proof.

A day later, government officials said the system had been repaired, restored from backups, and was ready to go. But it was just the beginning.

Only 40 minutes before election results were to go live on television at 8 p.m., Sunday, May 25, a team of government cyber experts removed a "virus" covertly installed on Central Election Commission computers, Ukrainian security officials said later.

If it had not been discovered and removed, the malicious software would have portrayed ultra-nationalist Right Sector party leader Dmytro Yarosh as the winner with 37 percent of the vote (instead of the 1 percent he actually received) and Petro Poroshenko (the actually winner with a majority of the vote) with just 29 percent, Ukraine officials told reporters the next morning.

Curiously, Russian Channel One aired a bulletin that evening declaring Mr. Yarosh the victor with 37 percent of the vote over Mr. Poroshenko with 29 percent, Ukraine officials said.

"Offenders were trying by means of previously installed software to fake election results in the given region and in such a way to discredit general results of elections of the President of Ukraine," the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) said in a statement.

Still, there was more to come.

In the wee hours of the morning after polls closed, as results flowed in from Ukrainian election districts, Internet links feeding that data to the vote tally system were hit with a barrage of fake data packets - known as distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks. So from about 1 to 3 a.m. on May 26, election results were blocked, delaying the finally tally until the early morning, a preliminary report by international election observers recounted.

An analysis of the DDoS attack by Arbor Networks, a Burlington, Mass., cyber-security company, ties it to CyberBerkut.

In the end, international observers declared Ukraine's vote "a genuine election." But US researchers say it's clear that Ukraine dodged a major cyber-bullet.

"We've seen vote fraud before in Ukraine, including a rigged computer system in 2004," says Peter Ordeshook, a California Institute of Technology political scientist. "But this wasn't an effort to steal the election outcome, so much as to steal the election itself - by entirely discrediting it in the eyes of key segments of the population in Ukraine and in Russia, too."

While it was well understood across most of Ukraine and internationally that the far-right candidate Yarosh had little political support, the faked results would have lent credibility to Russian-inspired accounts that the popular revolt last fall against the Ukraine government was fomented by ultra-nationalists. …

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