BOSTON (State House News Service) – With about five weeks to go until Election Day, federal authorities are urging states to make sure their voting systems are protected against cyber attacks, and officials in Massachusetts say they are prepared.
Already, federal officials said, “malicious cyber actors” have begun scanning state voting systems perhaps to find vulnerabilities ahead of the Nov. 8 election, and the FBI said in August that hackers had gained unpermitted access to data on two states’ elections websites.
In an election cycle that has included a breach of the Democratic National Committee email system by hackers, state and federal authorities are taking seriously the threat of a cyberattack that could alter the outcome of the presidential contest.
“These challenges aren’t just in the future — they are here today,” Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a statement. “In recent months, malicious cyber actors have been scanning a large number of state systems, which could be a preamble to attempted intrusion. In a few cases, we have determined that malicious actors gained access to state voting-related systems.”
Despite the apparent breach of state “voting-related systems,” Johnson said DHS is not aware of any voter data being manipulated. Johnson said 21 states had contacted DHS about the department’s services and said “we hope to see more” states ask for assistance.
Massachusetts is not one the states that has asked for assistance, according to Brian McNiff, a spokesman for Secretary of State William Galvin.
“What they’re looking at is electronic machines that are interconnected. We don’t have that,” McNiff said. “Our system is not only paper ballots, but it’s spread out so there is not one central place” that could be hacked.
Though many states moved to electronic voting machines after faulty punchcard ballots in Florida sent the 2000 presidential election to the Supreme Court, Massachusetts is one of 18 states that still uses paper ballots, according to Verified Voting, a non-partisan non-profit organization that advocates for the “accuracy, transparency and verifiability of elections.”
The paper ballots that Massachusetts voters fill out by hand are counted by an optical scanning machine, but the paper ballots are kept in order to conduct post-election audits to ensure the accuracy of the outcome.
Attorney General Maura Healey said Monday the threat of a cyberattack against election systems is “something we all need to be upset about and concerned about,” and said she will work with Galvin’s office to ensure the legitimacy of the election.
“Here in Massachusetts, I know that the secretary of state’s office will do everything it can to make sure that there is not an issue,” Healey said on Boston Herald Radio. “I believe in most places we have the equivalent of the paper ballot or a way of having some sort of backup if there is an attempted attack.”
States “face the challenge of malefactors that are seeking to use cyberattacks to disrupt the administration of our elections,” congressional leaders wrote in a letter last week to the National Association of State Election Directors.
“We urge states to take full advantage of the robust public and private sector resources available to them to ensure that their network infrastructure is secure from attack,” House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid wrote in the letter. “In addition, the Department of Homeland Security stands ready to provide cybersecurity assistance to those states that choose to request it.”
On Wednesday, the National Governors Association will kick off a three-day regional cybersecurity summit in Boston, designed to help states “identify best practices in managing cybersecurity risks across the state enterprise.” Gov. Charlie Baker said Monday he is not planning to attend the NGA summit.
Healey noted state voting systems are far from the only target of ill-intentioned hackers. She said her office routinely receives reports of email accounts and other Internet-connected services being hacked.
“This is just insane, right, the world that we’re in today when you think about what hackers are doing,” Healey said. “We are in a time where technology is evolving really quickly and the crooks out there are really smart and sophisticated.”