FBI Warns State Election Offices To Be Wary Of Hackers

Aug 31, 2016
Originally published on August 31, 2016 10:35 am
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

FBI director James Comey says the United States takes very seriously any effort to influence U.S. elections through a cyberattack. He said this after hackers apparently tried to get into at least two state voter databases. The FBI warned that state election offices should watch for other intrusions. The FBI even suggested Russians could be involved. NPR's Pam Fessler covers voting issues. She's in our studios.

Hi, Pam.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: What has happened? What is known?

FESSLER: Well, we know that two state voter databases this summer were involved in hacks, and we reported that several weeks ago. First, in June, the FBI alerted Arizona that a known Russian hacker had gained access to a county election worker's password and username, and then had used that to try and gain access to the state voter registration system. That attack wasn't successful, but it raised a lot of red flags.

Then in July, Illinois discovered that someone had gained access to their statewide voter database. That hacker was able to get voter information such as driver's license numbers. But no records were tampered with. The state was told it was highly likely a foreign entity was involved, but they don't really know. It's still being investigated.

INSKEEP: Is it time to panic?

FESSLER: (Laughter) Well, you know, these cyberattacks are always a concern, obviously. But, you know, if people are thinking that this is a case of somebody hacking into voting machines and actually changing the results, that's not actually what is happening...

INSKEEP: There's no evidence that has happened, you're saying.

FESSLER: Not at this point. These are voter registration lists, which are completely separate. And to put this in perspective - in Illinois, that voter database that was hacked - it is not the one that is actually used to keep track of voter registrations. Those are done at the county level. There are about a hundred different systems. So even if somebody had tampered with the state results, it wouldn't have affected the actual registration when somebody came to vote.

INSKEEP: How are states and other officials protecting their systems against further violations here?

FESSLER: Well, when something like this happens, both Arizona and Illinois have plugged the holes that they've seen. In Arizona, they changed the passwords, among other things.

INSKEEP: Good.

FESSLER: But also...

INSKEEP: I hope password was not the password.

FESSLER: Well, they joked that actually now it's password one.

INSKEEP: Oh, OK. Good, good. No one will ever figure that one out. Go on, go on, go on.

FESSLER: Exactly. But anyway, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, they're all now working very closely with state election officials to try to identify whether or not there is a threat, what the threats are and to figure out how they can work together to plug some of these security gaps.

The main thing they're trying to do is figure out what the motive is and who's behind these attacks. I mean, is this just an effort, you know, by some random person trying to collect data - voter information? Or is somebody actually trying to tamper with U.S. elections? And mostly at this point, they're trying to keep a step ahead of the threat.

INSKEEP: How worried is the public in this season of conspiracy theories?

FESSLER: Well, you know, there is a lot of concern. You know, we keep hearing about, oh, the system is rigged. And to be honest, a lot of voting experts believe that the U.S. election system today is safer than it's ever been. But whenever anybody raises these concerns, or if we have these attacks, that lowers confidence in the results. That's why everybody's so worried.

INSKEEP: Pam, thanks for coming by.

FESSLER: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Pam Fessler in our studios this morning. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.