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U.S. Officials Say Russian Hackers Targeted State And Local Governments

Oct 23, 2020
Originally published on October 25, 2020 10:46 pm
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Russian hackers have infiltrated U.S. state and local computer networks, which in some cases gave them access to voting and election data. That's what the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security warned yesterday. Remember, earlier this week, we learned about Iranian and Russian efforts to dispute the election by sending threatening emails to voters. To be clear, there is no evidence that either government has changed people's votes. NPR's Miles Parks covers election security and is with us this morning. Hi, Miles.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: What did Russian hackers do, exactly?

PARKS: So they've broken into the county servers of at least two U.S. counties. And in one case, they used that access to take some what seems like publicly available voter information. The hacks were formally announced yesterday, but as is usual in these sorts of cybersecurity cases, the government did not disclose where the hacks actually occurred. But The Washington Post reported last night they were county systems in California and Indiana.

MARTIN: All right. So hackers have figured out how to get into American systems, at least these systems. What could they do once they're in there?

PARKS: I think it's important to start with what they couldn't do, which - the Department of Homeland Security did a big job yesterday of saying that over and over again, that there's no evidence that hackers got anywhere near anyone's votes or the systems that tally those votes. Basically, these hackers, which are from this pretty notable Russian hacking group, sometimes known as Energetic Bear or Firefly - they broke into these county government systems, and the networks were such that they could then laterally move within a number of different local government offices, which gave them access to some of this voting data. But it's not clear that the intention was actually to gain access to that sort of data, considering the targeting was actually much broader.

They tried lots of different networks in the government and aviation sectors. It's important to note this is really different than what we saw in 2016, when there were targeted attacks specifically at voter registration systems in a number of states. We have not heard about that sort of thing in this election yet, although these attacks that we're hearing about yesterday are still really worrisome for officials who fear what Russia could do around the election if they do have access to these sorts of county systems.

MARTIN: So what's the federal government doing about it?

PARKS: The biggest thing is actually talking to voters about it this time. So that way, you know, if these hacking groups do use this access to, say, deface an elections website or mess with the results display page to show a different winner on Election Day than actually won, voters know how to differentiate between that presentation hack and actually affecting the underlying election results, affecting the actual winner of the election. This kind of interference is aimed at Americans' confidence in the legitimacy of the vote with the hope of making some voters doubt the results. Officials are basically trying to avoid that lack of confidence by getting out in front of it, disclosing the breaches now and telling voters, you know, what to look out for potentially - not saying this is definitely going to happen but just saying, hey, they have this access. They could potentially try to mess with election confidence in this way.

MARTIN: Just real quick, odds are this kind of interference isn't going to subside after this election, right? Did we learn anything in last night's debate about how President Trump or Joe Biden might respond to this threat moving forward?

PARKS: I don't know that we learned anything new, necessarily. We got the same kind of claims from President Trump that he's the toughest president on Russia despite, you know, for years, he has questioned the intelligence around the 2016 election interference. Biden obviously disagreed with that assessment. He noted what US election officials said this summer, which is that there was a Ukrainian lawmaker the U.S. government has now deemed a Russian asset...

MARTIN: Yeah.

PARKS: ...Who met with one of Trump's closest advisers, Rudy Giuliani. He says he'll punish Russia if it interferes. But, you know, it's not clear how he'll do that.

MARTIN: NPR's Miles Parks. Thanks, Miles.

PARKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.