Russia ‘successfully penetrated’ US voter registration system, says cybersecurity official
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A small number of US states known to have been targeted by Kremlin-backed hackers were successfully breached by hackers backed by the Russian government, an official of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has confirmed.
Jeanette Manfra, Assistant Secretary for Cybersecurity and Communications, told NBC News that the voter registration rolls of 21 states were targeted during the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. This has been recognised previously, and the states themselves had been notified of the attempts before the election. In June 2017, she confirmed to the Senate Intelligence Committee that Russian hackers had targeted the states.
Now it has emerged that an “exceptionally small number” of these targeted systems had been successfully penetrated. Manfra was not able to publicly disclose which of the states’ registration rolls had been affected.
Other government officials added that there is no evidence that voter registration rolls were tampered with as a result of these hacking attempts, and instead that the intrusions were preparations for attacks, such as searching for vulnerabilities to exploit.
In January 2017, the DHS designated voting systems as “critical infrastructure”, and is rolling out services – such as cybersecurity assessments – to states looking to protect their electoral infrastructure.
Manfra ,who has been assigned the task of protecting US democratic processes from cybersecurity threats, confirmed that there was “no doubt” that this targeting had come not just from people within Russia, but could be traced back to the Russian government.
The successful penetration of voter registration systems is just one strand of an emerging web of Kremlin-backed interference in the 2016 presidential election, favouring Republican candidate Donald Trump over Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
According to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Russian President Vladimir Putin personally ordered an “influence campaign” to “undermine public faith in the US democratic process”. This involved hacking email accounts of prominent Democratic figures and the servers of the Democratic National Committee, spreading misinformation on social media attacking Clinton, and potential direct engagement with Trump associates. Trump himself has repeatedly dismissed evidence of Russian meddling in the extraordinary election campaign which saw him elected as US president despite losing the popular vote to Clinton.
Possible signs of Russian interference have also been unearthed in the 2017 French presidential election – favouring divisive Front National candidate Marine Le Pen – and in the 2016 EU referendum campaign in the UK, favouring Brexit.
Now, US security leaders will turn their attentions to the threat of foreign intervention in the midterm elections, which will be held in November this year. In January, Mike Pompeo, director of the CIA, explicitly stated that he expected Russia to attempt to target the elections. This week, Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State, said that the Kremlin may already be attempting to interfere with these elections.
“I don’t know that I would say we are better prepared [than in 2016], because the Russians will adapt as well,” Tillerson told Fox News. “The point is, if it’s their intention to interfere, they are going to find ways to do that. We can take steps […] but this is something that once they decide they are going to do it, it’s very difficult to pre-empt it.”