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Understanding the cyber attack on Brazil’s electoral system

Understanding the cyber attack on Brazil's electoral system

For about 14 years, the legitimacy of the Brazilian electronic voting system — fully implemented in 2000 — was never called into doubt. From pretty much every angle, the system was considered a success: it made voting easier for people with difficulties to read and write (as candidates are assigned numbers instead of names), it made vote counts quicker, and it prevented fraud. Just six years prior to the introduction of electronic voting, Rio de Janeiro had to stage a do-over of its congressional races after it was proven that gangs tampered with ballots in order to get their candidates elected.

However, doubts about the system went mainstream in 2014, when center-right candidate Aécio Neves lost a tight presidential race and called foul play.

In a move to <a href="http://g1.globo.com/politica/noticia/2014/10/psdb-pede-ao-tse-auditoria-para-verificar-lisura-da-eleicao.html">discredit the election</a>, the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) started championing a bill to bring paper ballots back — which had been proposed by a then-obscure congressman, named Jair Bolsonaro.</p> <p>Once in power, Mr. Bolsonaro and his political clan have done everything in their power to challenge the legitimacy of the electronic voting system, even claiming that the 2018 election — which he <em>won</em> — was defrauded. Now, with <a href="https://brazilian.report/newsletters/brazil-weekly/2020/11/16/delays-rumors-and-surprises-in-brazil-municipal-election/">2020&#8217;s municipal election marred</a> by hacks of government systems, Brazil&#8217;s First Family seeks to capitalize on the uncertainty.</p> <p>On Sunday, after having gloated about their speedy and efficient vote counting system, Brazil&#8217;s municipal elections were riddled with problems.</p> <p>Technical problems in the vote count process caused abnormal delays to reporting and the electoral court&#8217;s servers were targeted by at least three attempted hacks. While there has been no indication that the integrity of the vote was affected in any way, the series of events gave way to various conspiracy theories and suspicions about the election process, as the country gears up for runoff votes in 57 cities on November 29.</p> <p>Sunday’s events are currently under investigation by the Federal Police as cybercrimes “with the aim of harming the 2020 election process,&#8221; in the words of Supreme Court Justice and head of Brazil’s Superior Electoral Court (TSE), Luis Roberto Barroso.</p> <p>A TSE app allowing people to use and access their electoral registrations online was unstable throughout the day, TSE servers were targeted by DDoS attacks, and leaked data of TSE employees was leaked online. The police have yet to identify any suspects.</p> <iframe src="https://open.spotify.com/embed-podcast/episode/48CYUbOSebfADmM5xpgTrk" width="100%" height="232" frameborder="0" allowtransparency="true" allow="encrypted-media"></iframe> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>A coordinated attack against the electoral system</h2> <p>The TSE website suffered an hour-long denial-of-service (DDos) attack on Sunday, in which around 460,000 infected computers accessed the court’s servers every second in an attempt to cause a system crash.</p> <p>While it did not affect the security of the election, the attack sparked a swathe of conspiracy theories which, according to NGO SaferNet, was the hack’s purpose.</p> <p>“This was a planned operation on the day of the elections to cast doubt over electoral courts and allege fraud in the unfavorable results of certain candidates,” said Thiago Tavares, president of SaferNet.</p> <p>The attack formed part of a series of operations beginning in October, when hackers managed to gain access to confidential data regarding former TSE employees and justices. However, that particular data leak was only made public on Sunday morning, in what Mr. Tavares believes was a strategy to increase exposure and impact.</p> <p>Initially, the leak was believed to contain data from public servants dating back to between 2001 and 2010, but Federal Police investigations suggest that <a href="https://g1.globo.com/politica/noticia/2020/11/19/policia-federal-aponta-que-hackers-acessaram-dados-de-2020-de-funcionarios-do-tse.ghtml?utm_source=push&amp;utm_medium=app&amp;utm_campaign=pushg1">hackers had access to 2020 information</a>, suggesting the extent of the attack may have been much larger than first thought.</p> <p>SaferNet shared findings from its investigation, showing that posts containing misinformation regarding the election process generated over 1 million shares on Facebook and Instagram.</p> <p>Electoral law professor and cofounder of Instituto Liberdade Digital, Diogo Rais, believes that the misinformation campaign around Brazil’s electronic voting system “is not a movement against the voting machines in themselves, but it is an attack against the institutions, by trying to discredit the electoral justice system.&#8221;</p> <h2>Record delays in vote counts</h2> <p>To add insult to the injury of suffering multiple attempted hacks, the TSE’s vote count endured large delays in reporting final results, thanks to a fault in the court’s computerized counting system.</p> <p>This election was the first in Brazil’s history when the TSE counted all of the country’s votes, as opposed to each state’s electoral authorities handling their processes individually.</p> <p>Brazil is renowned for its speed in tabulating and announcing election results, usually sewing up races all over the country in a matter of hours. However, late in the evening on Sunday, several states had only reported a small percentage of their votes.</p> <p>After a series of confusing and changing explanations from TSE head Justice Barroso, the court initially said that the problem was caused by a memory fault in the TSE’s &#8220;supercomputer.&#8221;</p> <p>Indeed, the component in question did have to be replaced, but the main problem consisted of a fault in the system’s artificial intelligence, which was unable to process the high volume of data received from voting machines. Prior to the election, tests had only been carried out with empty databases and the system reportedly needs “time to learn.&#8221;</p> <p>According to the TSE, pandemic restrictions meant the equipment could only be tested after August 14 — and only two of the five scheduled tests were completed before election day.</p> <p>The outage during the count led TSE technicians to interrupt the vote tabulation process and elaborate a new data processing plan, which delayed final results until early Monday morning.</p> <p>Again, suspicions of fraud have been discarded. According to Mr. Rais, &#8220;there is no relation between the two-and-a-half-hour delay and fraud. If there was fraud, it would have gone by undetected, but the TSE was transparent, it was clear that a technical error had occurred and is now publicly explaining what that error was.&#8221;

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Renato Alves

Renato Alves is a Brazilian journalist who has worked for Correio Braziliense and Crusoé.

Débora Álvares

Débora Álvares has worked as a political reporter for newspapers Folha de S.Paulo, O Estado de S.Paulo, Globo News, HuffPost, among others. She specializes in reporting on Brasilia, working behind-the-scenes coverage at the Executive, Legislative, and Judiciary branches of government.

Natália Scalzaretto

Natália Scalzaretto has worked for companies such as Santander Brasil and Reuters, where she covered news ranging from commodities to technology. Before joining The Brazilian Report, she worked as an editor for Trading News, the information division from the TradersClub investor community.

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