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Challenges Remain In Securing U.S. Elections By 2020

Apr 21, 2019
Originally published on April 21, 2019 1:33 pm
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The Mueller report reaffirmed that Russian agents broke into computer systems tied to U.S. elections in 2016. There's no evidence that they changed any votes. But the possibility that future voting could be hacked has led to stepped-up efforts to secure elections by 2020. NPR's Pam Fessler has the details.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: On August 24 of last year, Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos knew that things had changed. His IT manager came to his office and told him that two IP addresses linked to the Russian Federation were trying to break into their computers.

JIM CONDOS: We immediately sent that down to the Department of Homeland Security and to the Center for Internet Security for review.

FESSLER: And federal authorities discovered similar incidents in other states.

CONDOS: Immediately, they were able to send out a message to all 50 states to alert them to this. And so that's the kind of - the sense that we had that the communication level had improved tremendously.

FESSLER: Certainly a far cry from 2016 when state and local election officials and federal authorities barely knew that each other existed. Since then, there's been a constant flow of communications, cybersecurity training and equipment upgrades to protect against another attack. In Illinois, where Russians successfully broke into the state voter registration database and stole the information of half a million voters, the state has hired what are called cyber navigators to help county election offices strengthen their defenses.

MATT DIETRICH: We do not want one of those 108 local election authorities to be a weak link that gets targeted and gets hacked into.

FESSLER: Matt Dietrich, a spokesman for the state election board, says that could undermine public confidence in an entire election.

DIETRICH: They only have to get into one system to say they're in all of them.

FESSLER: Which keeps a lot of election officials up at night - David Stafford is supervisor of elections in Escambia County, Fla., a state that appears to be a special target for Russia. The Mueller report said the FBI believes that hackers gained access to one county computer system, which hadn't been publicly known before.

DAVID STAFFORD: But I don't think anybody is resting on their laurels and thinking that, OK we've licked this. And so now we can move on to the next issue. I think that it's all hands on deck.

FESSLER: Stafford notes that Florida has purchased what are called Albert sensors for each county, which allow their computer systems to be constantly monitored for signs of an attack. Other states are spending millions of dollars provided by Congress last year on new voting equipment and training. Matt Masterson of the Department of Homeland Security says another big focus will be figuring out how to fight the kind of disinformation campaign that Russia waged in 2016.

MATT MASTERSON: To help Americans understand what disinformation and foreign influence looks like. What are those tactics and techniques? - and how to go to trusted sources or understand the information that they're reading in that environment.

FESSLER: The details for this public outreach effort are still being worked out. Masterson says the big fear is that misinformation about things like election results could cause as much if not more chaos as tampering with votes. Still, some cybersecurity experts think the government isn't doing nearly enough.

JAKE BRAUN: We're, essentially, just as vulnerable as we were in 2016.

FESSLER: Jake Braun heads the Cyber Policy Initiative at the University of Chicago and is co-founder of the DEF CON Voting Machine Hacking Village, which exposed security flaws in equipment used around the country. Braun says many places still use insecure equipment. He's disturbed that President Trump hasn't made clear that those who tamper with those systems will be held to account.

BRAUN: Probably the number one conclusion I've come to in the last several years of working on this is that our elections are, essentially, unsecureable and that without a really strong and clear deterrence policy in place from the White House, the bad guys are going to do what they want to do.

FESSLER: He and others hope to make that as difficult as possible.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.