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The Weekly Hack: 4Chan trolls spewing racism try to steal votes in high school science competition

Three black teenagers reached the finals of a NASA competition. Internet hackers decided to go after them

Photo (c) D-Keine - Getty Images
For this year’s annual high school science competition sponsored by NASA, many people paid attention to one invention in particular: a water filter designed to bring cleaner drinking water to public schools.

Public health researchers have for years warned that the water from fountains in public schools is contaminated with lead, bromide, and other chemicals corroding from old pipes.

Mikayla Sharrieff, India Skinner, and Bria Snell, all in the 11th grade at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in Washington, D.C, had  engineered a filter designed to detect contaminants in public school water fountains.

The girls had reached the finals of the NASA competition last month. They were the only black, female group of high school scientists to make the final rounds this year. Winners were to be decided by online voting.

This apparently caught the attention of 4chan, an online message board that experts warn has attracted increasingly hateful and racist users in recent years. A recent attack in Toronto was linked to a 4chan message board.

NASA said in a statement that it was ending voting early to prevent people from hacking the vote, showing how even NASA is apparently not immune to online trolls.

“Some members of the public used social media,” NASA said in a statement, “to attack a particular student team based on their race and encouraged others to disrupt the contest and manipulate the vote.”

NASA claimed that it closed the competition before the votes were compromised. The winners will be announced later this month.

But reporters found some evidence suggesting that a voting hack could have already taken place.  An analysis by CNN found several threads on 4chan boards in which users directed each other to an anonymous privacy software to help “hack the voting system” and send votes to a group of boy high school scientists in the competition.

“...users posted racist insults and urged members to spread the campaign to other 4chan boards,” CNN reported.

Credit card chips

Those frustratingly slow readers for credit cards equipped with chips were supposed to be a small price to pay in exchange for safer credit cards. That is, until hackers figured out how to hack the chip readers.

The Better Business Bureau says that scammers are inserting thin microchips into the chip reader slot, allowing them to steal credit card information.

Other than catching someone in the act of putting a microchip into the credit card machine, a job that would likely fall on the cashier, there is no easy way to detect that the machines have been hacked.

“If you insert the card and it’s very tight, that could be a sign,” a Better Business Bureau spokesman told a Fox affiliate, “so make sure that you report it to the merchant.”

Small businesses

Major corporations that do not encrypt their data have proven to be vulnerable to hackers again and again. But it turns out that smaller businesses, with fewer resources to protect themselves from a hack, may also be a popular and easier target. Small local businesses in New Jersey make just as ripe targets as big business, the New Jersey Business Journal recently reported.

Sure enough, hacks targeting local businesses have been reported across the world this week. A salon in the United Kingdom said Friday that it was targeted with ransomware, or a type of malware that shuts down a computer system until owners hand over money.

In this case, information about all of the salon’s appointments had been deleted. In their place was a message demanding 30,000 pounds and a warning that more records would be deleted if the salon did not comply. The salon was warned by an IT support worker not to hand over the money.

The city of Atlanta was targeted with a similar type of ransomware attack earlier this year, and lawmakers in the state of Georgia are now mulling over a bill to make “unauthorized computer access “ a crime in the state.

But a group of so-called ethical hackers, who say they hack for moral and ethical reasons, say that the law would only serve to criminalize their work. To protest the bill, the hackers targeted local restaurants and a church, changing their websites to add clips of pop songs.

The hackers have threatened to retaliate further if the law passes, a local newspaper reported.

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