Could the Presidential Election Be Hacked? FBI 'Flash' Alert Urges States to Bolster Security

Recent hacks in election databases raise fresh concerns about cybersecurity in the lead-up to the presidential elections. According to a new investigation by Yahoo News, the FBI’s Cyber Division released a "flash" alert earlier this month and warned election officials across the nation to take new measures to bolster the security of their computer systems. Sources familiar with the document told Yahoo News that Arizona and Illinois were the two states compromised by the hacks. The Illinois hack reportedly caused more damage, forcing officials to shut down the voter registration system for 10 days in July after the hackers managed to download personal data on up to 200,000 state voters. We speak to Michael Isikoff, chief investigative correspondent for Yahoo News.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Hackers based outside the United States have reportedly infiltrated two state election databases, raising fresh concerns about cybersecurity in the lead-up to the presidential elections. This is according to a new investigation by Yahoo News. FBI’s Cyber Division released a "flash" alert earlier this month and warned election officials across the country to take new measures to bolster the security of their computer systems. Sources familiar with the document told Yahoo News that Arizona and Illinois were the two states compromised by the hacks. The Illinois hack reportedly caused more damage, forcing officials to shut down the voter registration system for 10 days in July after the hackers managed to download personal data on up to 200,000 state voters. For more, we go to D.C. to the man behind the investigation, Michael Isikoff, chief investigative correspondent for Yahoo News. His new piece is headlined "FBI Says Foreign Hackers Penetrated State Election Systems." Michael, thanks for joining us again. Explain what you found.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Sure. Well, look, this whole issue of potential hacking of the election has gotten a lot of attention because of the hack of the Democratic National Committee and other political organizations in Washington that U.S. officials believe was committed by Russian intelligence. That raised the concern that the Russians, if indeed they did what U.S. officials believe they did, won’t stop there, and they might seek to tamper with the election itself. Now, that would not be an easy thing to do. In 40 states, we have optical scan voting, in which there are backup of paper ballots, so there’s a safety net there. But there are points of vulnerability. In six states and parts of four others, including Pennsylvania, a crucial swing state, there are electronic voting machines, that are vulnerable, that could be tampered with. There’s internet voting for overseas ballots and military ballots in 33 states, so that’s another point of vulnerability. All this prompted Jeh Johnson, homeland security secretary, to have a conference call with state election officials on August 15th and advise them, "Here are steps we think you should take. This is an area of concern." And then, as we report in this piece, three days later, the FBI sent a confidential warning to state election officials, saying that they were investigating penetrations of two states. They don’t refer to—they don’t name them in the piece, but we did—in the alert, but we did report they’re Arizona and Illinois. In the case of Illinois, hackers, believed to be foreign, penetrated the election voter database and exfiltrated, stole data on about 200,000 voters. So, we don’t know at this point whether that is linked to the Democratic National Committee hacking. It’s something the FBI is investigating, although this just as easily could have been common cybercriminals doing this for fraud purposes. But it has raised the concerns to new levels that this is something that state election officials have to take a lot more seriously, and federal officials, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: What are these states? You mentioned six states and parts of four others use these DREs, or direct recording electronic voting machines, which have no paper backup.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Yeah. Well, the two that would be of particular concern, because they’re swing states in the election, is Pennsylvania and Virginia. Some of the others—Tennessee—are, you know, probably pretty locked in on who they’re going to vote for. But I can tell you that this is being taken seriously in those states. I talked to Pennsylvania officials for this piece. They’re very aware of these vulnerabilities. I mean, one thing—you know, one obvious step is to make sure the machines are not connected to the internet, you know, in and around the time of voting, but at some point they have to be turned on, and, you know, they do have to be connected. And that’s—you know, a sophisticated hacker could theoretically get in and somehow tamper with the tabulations.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Michael, you have the FBI saying they’ve uncovered evidence that foreign hackers penetrated two state election systems. But, of course, it doesn’t just have to be foreign hackers.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Right, it could be anybody. And, look, there is, you know, the—on both sides, there is heightened awareness and concern about this. You have Donald Trump talking about rigged elections. And then, on the other hand, you have Democrats, like Harry Reid, who wrote a letter to FBI Director Comey yesterday, after my piece, raising concerns about Russian tampering. And given associations that people in the Trump campaign have had with Russia—Paul Manafort, of course, was in business with pro-Putin oligarchs; Mike Flynn, the general, retired general, had flown over to Moscow for the 10th anniversary celebration of RT and was paid for it—so there’s been multiple—

AMY GOODMAN: An adviser to Donald Trump.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: —allegations. Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And you have Donald Trump talking about rigged elections. On the other hand, what was your response to him calling on Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Yeah, well, clearly, that got a lot of attention and seemed way over the top. Of course, he said he was only being sarcastic and shouldn’t be taken seriously. But I think, look, you know, is—can the Russians actually launch a full-scale cyber-attack and influence the election? You know, probably not. As I mentioned, there are points of vulnerability, but it would take a lot, given that elections are state and local affairs, and there’s a lot of points of entry, and it would be a huge undertaking. But even if they could do it—

AMY GOODMAN: Three seconds.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: —a little bit, do something like what they did, like the tampering with election—

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