DHS and FBI helping state governments defend against cyber attacks on Election Day

Posted at 6:34 PM, Nov 07, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-07 18:34:53-05

With the election just hours away, officials with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) are on high-alert, monitoring any potential cyber threats or breaches that could impact the election.

Just this summer, the FBI said they had evidence of international hackers targeting voter registration systems in several states. It's a breach that's raised security questions ahead of Tuesday's election.

“The DHS and FBI have noticed some irregularities in various state's voter registration databases and that's completely different than the voting computers,” said Cris Thomas, a strategist with Tenable Network Security, and cyber security company in Columbia, Maryland.

In Illinois and Arizona, hackers were able to access some voter information, but Thomas said the information gathered would not have been able to change an election.

“There is a small danger that somebody could change the [voter] rolls, delete people from the rolls, add new people, but again it would have to be done in such a way that you'd have to be able to create enough new votes to change a national election and do it in a way that nobody can notice,” Thomas said.

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DHS is now working with many states, including Maryland, to scan computer systems and identify any vulnerabilities.

“We do routine scanning of all of our systems and we're working with the Department of Homeland Security, who is also doing scanning of our systems and we have found nothing," said Linda Lamone, the state administrator with the Maryland State Board of Elections.

Lamone said they also reached out to the FBI following the breaches in Illinois and Arizona.

"We contacted them. We were one of the states that went in early and said, 'Okay, what's going on here, how can you help us?," Lamone said,

States must also work to protect their election machines. Thomas said it has been shown to be possible to change someone's vote, but that's only if a hacker has physical access to the system.

“You can manipulate the vote, the tally the machine is collecting. Whether that's vote flipping, or changing the vote after the fact, or changing the ballot so different people show up, all these things are possible or have been shown possible in various different machines, but in all those cases, you always need to have physical access to the system,” Thomas said.

Aside from that, it's nearly impossible for hackers to change the data because none of the systems are put online.

“Election computers are not supposed to be connected to the internet. The election management systems that manage those systems are not supposed to be connected to the internet, and even if they were, we're talking about 9,000 different jurisdictions in the United States all with different types of technology, different types of voting computers. And so, there is a large, varied ecosystem of computers that somebody would have to try and compromise and do it in such a way that nobody notices,” Thomas said.

Something again that's extremely unlikely, and with polls set to open soon the state feels comfortable with the systems they have in place.

“It's as secure as we can get them,” Lamone said.

Even so, Thomas said more needs to be done in the future to protect the integrity of our country’s elections.

“Unfortunately we only talk about this every four, sometimes every eight years, and it's been ongoing problem ever since we started using voting computers. I think we really need to have a national conversation on Nov. 9 so that in four years we're ready for the next election,” Thomas said.

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