Foreign hackers gained unauthorized access to two state election databases in recent weeks, according to a report from Yahoo News.
The hack prompted the FBI to issue a warning to election officials nationwide to enhance the security of their computer systems. The report describes heightened concern among U.S. intelligence officials about cyber intrusions meant to disrupt the November presidential election.
Yahoo News obtained a copy of a “flash alert” from the FBI’s Cyber Division, sent Aug. 18, which reports that the FBI detected security breaches in July and then again in August. The alert describes how the hacking took place, and requests that states contact their Board of Elections to determine if any similar activity may have been detected.
Three days before the flash alert, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson held a conference call with state election officials Aug. 15. Johnson asserted that Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was not aware of a “specific or credible cybersecurity threat,” to the November election, at the time of the call, but the “flash alert” sent three days later indicated that foreign actors were penetrating state election computers.
Johnson said that DHS is considering classifying election polling stations as critical infrastructure, and points out the fact that U.S. voting machines have not had a security update since they were mandated in 2002 under the Help America Vote Act. Securing the nation’s voting system is a complicated, cumbersome task, since the Constitution delegates the responsibility of administering elections to the states. Fifty different state election systems and thousands of local jurisdictions have a role in carrying out the November election.
The FBI did not name the states whose systems were penetrated, but according to Yahoo News, sources familiar with the document say it refers to voter registration databases in Arizona and Illinois. In Illinois, officials were reportedly forced to shut down the state’s voter registration system for 10 days in July after hackers downloaded the personal data of up to 200,000 voters. The Arizona attack did not result in the loss of anyone’s personal information.
Designating election polling sites as critical infrastructure would allow state election officials to request federal assistance in protecting their voting systems. The nation’s power grid and financial institutions are classified as critical infrastructure. A majority of American voting machines are backed up by paper receipts (paper ballots) that allow election officials to check for irregularities, but six states and parts of others have completely paperless systems.
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