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Unidentified foreign hackers in recent weeks penetrated the computer systems that control elections in two states, the FBI has revealed.
The federal government is so concerned about the threat that Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson wants federal cybersecurity experts to check state computer systems.
The FBI’s Cyber Division, in an August 18 “flash” alert obtained by Yahoo News, warned that hackers are actively targeting State Board of Election systems. The flash alert, restricted to those in the “need to know,” states that hackers penetrated election systems in July and August.
The breach is significant because between 20 and 30 percent of elections in the United States are electronic-only, with no paper backup.
“This is a big deal. Two state election boards have been popped, and data has been taken,” Richard Barger of cybersecurity firm ThreatConnect told Yahoo News. “This certainly should be concerning to the common American voter.”
Yahoo News obtained the flash alert, which was not intended for the public, from an unidentified source. The flash does not identify the hackers, but Barger noted that an IP address listed in the alert has been seen in Russian hacker forums. The tools the hackers used to scan state electoral systems are also used by state-sponsored Russian hackers, Barger noted.
“The FBI is requesting that states contact their Board of Elections and determine if any similar activity to their logs, both inbound and outbound, has been detected,” the alert reads. “Attempts should not be made to touch or ping the IP addresses directly.”
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Intelligence officials are increasingly concerned about the security of the November elections, Yahoo News reported.
Hackers Stole Data on 200,000 Voters
The FBI failed to acknowledge the flash publicly, but Johnson was so concerned that he held a conference call with state election officials on August 15. During the call, Johnson offered to have his department’s experts scan state systems for threats.
The hacking incidents took place in Illinois and Arizona. In Illinois, hackers managed to download personal data on 200,000 voters. In Arizona, hackers installed malware on election computers.
The FBI is now asking state election officials to check their systems for signs of similar attacks. Yahoo News reported that “federal and state election officials say … the prospect of a full-blown cyberattack that seriously disrupts the November elections is remote, but not out of the question.”
“The question remains whether the federal government will subvert the Constitution to achieve the goal of federalizing elections under the guise of security,” Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp told Politico.
A number of state election officials joined Kemp in expressing fears of a federal power grab.
“Elections have always been run and organized by the states,” said Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill, a Democrat. “And I think there has always been a fear that there would be federal intervention that would not recognize differences among the states.”
Merrill added, “We’re not happy about anything that serves to make people concerned about the safety of the election at this point. I think it’s wrong to think that there’s some sort of threat that isn’t there.”
Others, though, say the threat is serious.
“These are exactly the same kinds of statements made by every large organization about their security until they are the next Sony, Target, or … NSA,” said Bruce McConnell, former undersecretary of Homeland Security. “I think it’s pretty clear today which is the greater risk to the republic: citizens losing complete confidence in our election system, or the states working carefully with Washington to prevent disaster, while keeping the 10th Amendment well in mind.”
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