Election experts worry that local election sites remain dangerously vulnerable to Russian attacks that are growing in number and sophistication ahead of the presidential vote next month.
Federal investigators believe that Russian hackers were behind cyberattacks on a contractor for Florida's election system that may have exposed the personal data of the state's voters, according to a CNN report on Wednesday that cited U.S. officials. The hack of the Florida contractor comes after hacks in Illinois, in which the personal data of tens of thousands of voters may have been stolen, and Arizona, in which investigators now believe the data of voters was likely exposed.
These attacks continue despite software upgrades and technical support from cyber-experts at the Department of Homeland Security, which directly accused the Russian government last Friday of being behind the disclosure of hacked emails on sites like WikiLeaks and DCLeaks.
"We believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia's senior-most officials could have authorized these activities," said the statement, which DHS issued jointly with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence It went on to acknowledge the "scanning and probing" of state election systems from servers operated by a Russian company, but stopped short of attributing such activity to the Russian government.
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On Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the accusations by the Obama administration "ridiculous" in an interview with CNN, and denied any involvement.
"It's flattering, of course, to get this kind of attention - for a regional power, as President Obama called us some time ago," Lavrov remarked.
"Now everybody in the United States is saying that it is Russia which is running the [U.S.] presidential debate," he went on. "We have not seen a single fact, a single proof."
Experts in U.S. voting technology say that it's unlikely that Russia could change the number of votes cast for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, but they could potentially knock people off voter rolls, causing enough turmoil to delay the final count or undermine its legitimacy.
"The simplest thing is just to delete entries from the [voter registration] database," said Dan Wallach, a computer science professor at Rice University who specializes in the security of electronic voting systems.
"When you do that, all these people show up to vote and they're not on the list," said Wallach, who recently testified before two congressional committees about protecting the 2016 election from such attacks. "We have provisional voting that requires an affidavit and then they can vote provisionally. But this process was never meant to have millions of provisional voters."
Wallach believes that officials need to have a disaster plan in place for the upcoming election, which might involve readying additional computing capabilities to handle a denial-of-service attack that threatens to knock an election-related website out of action.
Early voting systems, which allow people in some states to cast ballots at places other than their normal precinct, present another vulnerability. Some of these early voting databases must be linked to the internet in order to ensure that early voters in one part of the county don't also vote in another.
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But between now and Nov. 8, it's unlikely that authorities will make many changes.
"No election official is going to procure, test and install some new system," Wallach said. "That's just not feasible. It's important that it's something they get on top of post-election."
The nation's decentralized voting system - with counting and tabulating often done county-by-county - is both a strength and a weakness when it comes to security, according to Merle King, director of the Center for Election Systems at Kennesaw State University in Georgia.
Each state has different election-related and vote-counting systems, although about three-quarters use a paper ballot that is later scanned into a vote counting device. Some states that use electronic vote counting machines also require a paper receipt, but others, including battleground Pennsylvania, do not. In 2015, Virginia finally replaced more than 3,000 touch-screen machines that had poorly-secured Wi-Fi systems for vote tabulating, although it took 12 years to do it.
At the same time, a decentralized system with thousands of databases and multiple ways of recording votes makes it tougher to create widespread cyber-chaos in a national election. King said it's important to upgrade both systems and hardware, but that election officials not overreact to the recent Russian threat and change protocols and software that they have been testing over the past few years.
"The last thing we want election officials to do is arbitrarily change to unvetted procedures for an unspecific threat," he said.
In fact, at least one state says it's business as usual.
"I don't know that we are doing anything different," said Joshua Eck, a spokesman for the Ohio Secretary of State's Office. "We have a number of systems in place to prevent voter fraud or hacking."
Eck said that all 88 Ohio counties are responsible for maintaining voter registration databases as well as counting and tabulating the votes. The totals are then uploaded to a website operated by the secretary of state before becoming public. Eck said that Ohio has been preparing for this election just like every other one.
"If the first time that you became worried about voting security was when the FBI became worried," he remarked, "you're pretty late to the party."
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