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DHS Notifies States Targeted by Russia in Election Hacks

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has finally notified the states whose systems were targeted by hackers before last year’s presidential election.

DHS officials told the Senate Intelligence Committee in June that a threat group believed to be working for the Russian government had targeted websites and other voting-related systems in 21 states.

The agency said at the time that only a small number of networks were actually breached, and it did not find any evidence that vote tallies had been altered. Nevertheless, many officials agree that Russia did at least try to influence the outcome of the election.

The DHS has now informed state officials about the attacks in an effort to help them improve the security of their systems before next year’s midterm elections.

The DHS has not named any of the targets, but some state officials published statements on their websites or social media profiles. The list of states that admitted being contacted by the agency include Alabama, Arizona, California, Connecticut, Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Washington.

The Associated Press and other news agencies reported that the list of targeted states also includes Alaska, Delaware, Florida, Maryland, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia. Illinois was named one of the targets in the summer of 2016, when officials shut down voter registration after hackers gained access to as many as 200,000 records.

All the states that published statements about being notified by the DHS said their systems were either only scanned for vulnerabilities, or their security products blocked the intrusion attempts.

Colorado, for instance, sought to reassure voters, pointing out that its systems were only scanned and compared the process to “burglars jiggling the doors of a house and moving on when they realize the doors are locked.”

While the attacks do not appear to have had a significant impact, some officials are displeased with the fact that it has taken the DHS so long to notify officials.

“It's unacceptable that it took almost a year after the election to notify states that their elections systems were targeted, but I'm relieved that DHS has acted upon our numerous requests and is finally informing the top elections officials in all 21 affected states that Russian hackers tried to breach their systems in the run up to the 2016 election,” said Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA), vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

“We have to do better in the future. Our elections are the bedrock of our democracy, and DHS needs to notify states and localities in real-time when their systems are targeted,” Sen. Warner added. “While I understand that DHS detects thousands of attempted cyber attacks daily, I expect the top election officials of each state to be made aware of all such attempted intrusions, successful or not, so that they can strengthen their defenses -- just as any homeowner would expect the alarm company to inform them of all break-in attempts, even if the burglar doesn't actually get inside the house.”

Congressman Adam Schiff said on Twitter that the DHS should notify states of attempted election hacking in real time.

Adam Schiff election hacking tweet

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla is also displeased with the fact that the notification came so late.

“It is completely unacceptable that it has taken DHS over a year to inform our office of Russian scanning of our systems, despite our repeated requests for information. The practice of withholding critical information from elections officials is a detriment to the security of our elections and our democracy,” Padilla stated.

“In a letter I sent to Admiral Michael S. Rogers of the National Security Agency (NSA) earlier this year in June, I expressed serious concern about the NSA's failure to provide timely and critical information to America's elections officials. We shouldn’t have to learn about potential threats from leaked NSA documents or media reports. It is the intelligence community’s responsibility to inform elections officials of any potential threats to our elections. They failed in this responsibility,” Padilla added.

Related: Germany on Guard Against Election Hacks, Fake News

Related: Putin Says Patriotic Russians Could Be Behind Election Hacks

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Eduard Kovacs (@EduardKovacs) is a contributing editor at SecurityWeek. He worked as a high school IT teacher for two years before starting a career in journalism as Softpedia’s security news reporter. Eduard holds a bachelor’s degree in industrial informatics and a master’s degree in computer techniques applied in electrical engineering.