FBI is investigating foreign hacks of state election systems

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The Washington Post reports that hackers targeted voter registration systems in Illinois and Arizona, and the FBI alerted Arizona officials in June that Russians were behind the assault on the election system in that state.

The bureau described the threat as “credible” and significant, “an eight on a scale of one to 10,” Matt Roberts, a spokesman for Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan (R), said Monday. As a result, Reagan shut down the state’s voter registration system for nearly a week (NOLA.com).

It turned out that the hackers had not compromised the state system or even any county system. They had, however, stolen the user name and password of a single elections official in Gila County (NOLA.com).

Roberts said FBI investigators did not specify whether the hackers were criminals or employed by the Russian government. Bureau officials on Monday declined to comment (NOLA.com).

The Arizona incident is the latest indication of Russian interest in U.S. elections and party operations, and follows the discovery of a high-profile penetration into Democratic National Committee computers. That hack produced embarrassing emails that led to the resignation of DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and sowed dissension on the eve of Hillary Clinton’s nomination as the party’s presidential candidate (NOLA.com).

The Russian campaign is also sparking intense anxiety about the security of this year’s elections. Earlier this month, the FBI warned state officials to be on the lookout for intrusions into their elections systems. The “flash” alert, which was first reported by Yahoo News, said investigators had detected attempts to penetrate election systems in several states and listed Internet protocol addresses and other technical fingerprints associated with the hacks (NOLA.com).

In addition to Arizona, Illinois officials discovered an intrusion into their elections system in July. Although the hackers did not alter any data, the intrusion marks the first successful compromise of a state voter-registration database, federal officials said (NOLA.com).

“This was a highly sophisticated attack most likely from a foreign (international) entity,” said Kyle Thomas, director of voting and registration systems for the Illinois State Board of Elections, in a message that was sent to all election authorities in the state (NOLA.com).

The Illinois hackers were able to retrieve voter records, but the number accessed was “a fairly small percentage of the total,” said Ken Menzel, general counsel for the Illinois elections board (NOLA.com).

State officials alerted the FBI, he said, and the Department of Homeland Security also was involved. The intrusion in Illinois led to a week-long shutdown of the voter registration system (NOLA.com).

The FBI has told Illinois officials that it is looking at foreign government agencies and criminal hackers as potential culprits, Menzel said (NOLA.com).

At least two other states are looking into possible breaches, officials said. Meanwhile, states across the nation are scrambling to ensure that their systems are secure (NOLA.com).

Until now, countries such as Russia and China have shown little interest in voting systems in the United States. But experts said that if a foreign government gained the ability to tamper with voter data – for instance by deleting registration records – such a hack could cast doubt on the legitimacy of U.S. elections (NOLA.com).

“I’m less concerned about the attackers getting access to and downloading the information. I’m more concerned about the information being altered, modified or deleted. That’s where the real potential is for any sort of meddling in the election,”said Brian Kalkin, vice president of operations for the Center for Internet Security, which operates the MS-ISAC, a multistate information-sharing center that helps government agencies combat cyberthreats and works closely with federal law enforcement (NOLA.com).

James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, has told Congress that manipulation or deletion of data is the next big cyberthreat – “the next push on the envelope” (NOLA.com).

Tom Hicks, chairman of the federal Election Assistance Commission, an agency set up by Congress after the 2000 Florida recount to maintain election integrity, said he is confident that states have sufficient safeguards in place to ward off attempts to manipulate data (NOLA.com).

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