with Tonya Riley


LAS VEGAS — In a Cosmopolitan hotel suite 16 stories above the Def Con cybersecurity conference this weekend, a team of highly vetted hackers tried to sabotage a vital flight system for a U.S. military fighter jet. And they succeeded. 

It was the first time outside researchers were allowed physical access to the critical F-15 system to search for weaknesses. And after two long days, the seven hackers found a mother lode of vulnerabilities that — if exploited in real life — could have completely shut down the Trusted Aircraft Information Program Download Station, which collects reams of data from video cameras and sensors while the jet is in flight.

They even found bugs that the Air Force had tried but failed to fix after the same group of hackers performed similar tests in November without actually touching the device.

“They were able to get back in through the back doors they already knew were open,” Will Roper, the Air Force’s top acquisition official, told me in an exclusive briefing of the results. 

The hackers lobbed a variety of attacks — including injecting the system with malware and even going at it with pliers and screwdrivers. When I saw it, the metal box that's usually secure on the aircraft had wires hanging out the front. 

The hackers briefed Roper on the findings on Saturday afternoon. He was surrounded by discarded pizza boxes, iced coffee drinks — and the hotel's drinking glasses filled with screws, nuts and bolts removed from five fully dismantled TADS devices, which run about $20,000 a pop. 

He’d expected the results to be about this bad, Roper told me on a private tour of the hacking event. He pinned the weaknesses on decades of neglect of cybersecurity as a key issue in developing its products, as the Air Force prioritized time, cost and efficiency.

He's trying to turn that around, and is hopeful about the results of the U.S. government's newfound openness to ethical hackers. He’d come straight from Def Con’s first-ever Aviation Village, which the Air Force helped establish, and was wearing a gray T-shirt with the words “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to hack,” emblazoned on the front — a riff on a classic line from the 1964 James Bond film “Goldfinger.”

This is a drastic change from previous years, when the military would not allow hackers to try to search for vulnerabilities in extremely sensitive equipment, let alone take a literal whack at it. But the Air Force is convinced that unless it allows America’s best hackers to search out all the digital vulnerabilities in its planes and weapons systems, then the best hackers from adversaries such as Russia, Iran and North Korea will find and exploit those vulnerabilities first, Roper told me.

“There are millions of lines of code that are in all of our aircraft and if there’s one of them that’s flawed, then a country that can’t build a fighter to shoot down that aircraft might take it out with just a few keystrokes,” he said.

Roper wants to put his military hardware where his mouth is. 

During next year’s Def Con conference, he wants to bring vetted hackers to Nellis or Creech Air Force bases near Las Vegas where they can probe for bugs on every digital system in a military plane, including for ways that bugs in one system can allow hackers to exploit other systems until they’ve gained effective control of the entire plane.

He also wants to open up the ground control system for an operational military satellite for hacker testing, he said.

“We want to bring this community to bear on real weapons systems and real airplanes,” Roper told me. “And if they have vulnerabilities, it would be best to find them before we go into conflict.”

Those hacking challenges will also be useful for the private sector because military planes and satellites share many of their computer systems with the commercial versions of those products, Roper said, and the Air Force can share its findings.

The seven hackers probing the TADS devices were all brought to Vegas by the cybersecurity company Synack, which sells the Pentagon third-party vulnerability testing services, under a contract with the Defense Digital Service, a team of mostly private-sector technology stars who try to solve some of the Pentagon’s thorniest technology problems during short-term tours. Five other Synack-affiliated hackers participated during some portions of the project. 

The Defense Digital Service started by organizing large-scale hacking competitions in 2016, with names such as “Hack the Pentagon” and, eventually, “Hack the Air Force.” These were open to almost anybody — but included only public-facing hacking targets such as military service websites and apps.

Shortly after, they also began opening more sensitive systems to a smaller number of vetted hackers who sign nondisclosure agreements.

DDS has run about a dozen of those more sensitive hacking competitions so far, but this is the first time it has offered up the same system for hacking twice, said Brett Goldstein, DDS’s director, who earned a reputation in technology as Open Table’s IT director and chief data officer for the city of Chicago.

“That’s important because security is a continuous process,” he told me. “You can't do an exercise and say, ‘Oh, we found everything' and check the box. You need to constantly go back and reevaluate.”

They also allowed the hackers to be more aggressive this time and to physically disassemble the TADS systems to get a better idea of what kinds of digital attacks might be effective, Goldstein said. That meant the hackers could simulate a cyberattack from adversaries that had infiltrated the vast network of suppliers that make TADS components and had sophisticated knowledge about how to compromise those elements.

They could also advise the Air Force about flaws in how the TADS hardware was built that make it more susceptible to digital attacks.

Moving forward, Roper told me, he wants to start using that knowledge to mandate that Air Force vendors build better software and hardware security controls into their planes and weapons systems upfront so the Air Force doesn’t have to do so much cybersecurity work on the back end.

He’s up against an arcane and byzantine military contracting process, however, that’s going to make those sorts of fundamental reforms extremely difficult, he acknowledged.

In some cases, the company that built an Air Force system owns the software embedded in that system and won’t let the Air Force open it up for outside testing, he says. In other cases, the Air Force is stuck with legacy IT systems that are so out of date that it’s difficult for even the best technologists to make them more secure.

“It’s difficult to do this going backward, but we’re doing our best,” Roper told me. “I can’t underscore enough, we just got into the batter’s box for what’s going to be a long baseball game.”


PINGED: More than 500 election officials in Wisconsin are accessing statewide voter registration and election systems on computers that are vulnerable to attacks thanks to outdated software, Benjamin Freed at StateScoop reports.

Those outdated systems can leave computers vulnerable to attacks like the one that forced one Georgia county to shell out nearly half a million dollars to hackers to regain control of its computer systems earlier this summer, the report from the Wisconsin Elections Commission's top cybersecurity official Tony Bridges points out

The computers identified in the report run on Windows XP, which Microsoft hasn’t updated since 2014, and Windows 7, which the company will stop updating in January. Because officials have been using the outdated systems to access voter registrations, transfer absentee ballots, and correspond with voters, any infiltration could prove disastrous to the upcoming election.

A recent Senate report confimed that Russian hackers likely targeted election systems in all 50 states in 2016. Yet most local officials say they lack funding to update their systems. Wisconsin, which has over 1,800 distinct election offices, is no exception, according to the report. Bridges recommends that the Wisconsin Elections Commission spend roughly $800,000 to buy new computers and other election-security related measures.

PATCHED: Rep. Douglas A. Collins (Ga.), the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, thinks his Democratic colleagues' eagerness to review the findings of the report by former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III have more to do with trying to “embarrass the president and perpetuate the dying hopes of impeaching him” than pursuing threats of Russian interference in the 2020 election. Collins chastised Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) for holding four hearings on the Mueller report and spending “time and resources — which could have been used to craft and move election security legislation” on compelling additional former Trump administration members to testify in a letter yesterday.

“Committee Republicans have taken the lead in this arena by sponsoring the DETER ACT and the Defending the Integrity of Voting Systems Act,” Collins, who made a similar call to action in June, wrote. “Again, I call on you to hold hearings to give us a legislative road map to combat Russian interference in future elections. Our focus should not be re-investigating, re-litigating, or otherwise redoing what has already been finished.” 

The House passed the Securing America's Federal Elections Act, which would authorize $600 million in funding for states to enhance their election security. The bill, which was supported by only one Republican, was blasted by Republican House members as “politicized.” The bill is unlikely to even get a vote in the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has put a moratorium on any election security-related votes.

PWNED: Hackers who create phishing websites to steal people’s banking credentials are putting more effort into making those sites look legitimate, according to a report out this morning from the cybersecurity company Normshield. Hackers are increasingly registering phony bank domains with certificates that give URLs a trademark “padlock” icon that users have been taught to trust as legitimate in an effort to dupe users into surrendering their usernames and passwords. The domain itself may look like a real bank's but with a letter or two misplaced. 

The number of potential phishing domains with a valid certificate nearly doubled from 8.5 percent to 15 percent between 2018 and 2019, researchers found. The attacks, which target bank employees in addition to customers, could lead to a rise in data breaches at financial institutions, they warn. 

And that number probably will grow. Since January, researchers have noticed a 14 percent increase in phishing domains and expect to see more than 3,500 more active phishing domains by the end of 2019.


President Trump, who’s largely ignored the election security debate roiling Congress, jumped into the fray on Twitter Tuesday, saying legislation aimed at deterring Russians from hacking election systems should be paired with efforts to prevent voter fraud by Americans. A commission Trump created to find widespread evidence of such fraud soon after his election was unable to find sufficient evidence

Election security supporters were quick to punch back.

Here’s Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.):

And University of Texas Law Professor Steve Vladeck:


— Cybersecurity news from the public sector:


— Cybersecurity news from the private sector:


— Cybersecurity news from abroad:


Coming up:

  • The U.S. Election Assistance Commission will convene Secretaries of State, along with representatives from government and voting system manufacturers and testing laboratories for EAC Election Security Forum on Thursday from 12:30-3:30 p.m.