Could hackers compromise November election results?

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HARI SREENIVASAN: Concern has been growing about possible cyber-manipulation of the U.S. election since revelations in June that the Democratic National Committee and Democratic Congressional Committee’s data had been stolen.

U.S. intelligence official pointed the finger at Russian-government-linked hackers, though wouldn’t say so publicly. Separately, Illinois and Arizona’s voter registration databases were penetrated in June, forcing them to temporarily shut down.

This week, FBI Director James Comey told Congress there had been new attempts to penetrate many more state voter databases.

Margaret Warner has been looking into this and joins me now.

So, what’s the real danger to the elections if voter registration databases are being hacked?

MARGARET WARNER: Hari, on one hand, it could be strictly criminal. People want to get addresses, home phone numbers, e-mails, and use it for criminal purposes.

And many states have had to deal with that in the past. But the other danger is that that information can be used to selectively used to manipulate the vote on Election Day.

For example, send out e-mails to voters in certain districts, perhaps minority districts, and, oh, your registration place has been changed, your voting place has been changed. And this has been done often by phone. It’s an old, old trick. Or to simply to delete them from the database, so when they get there, there is incredible confusion.

So, as a senior homeland security official told me this afternoon, the other danger that really worries us is that just the news of these hacks undermined American voters’ view of the credibility of the U.S. election system. And there are certainly foreign powers who would like to do that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, let’s talk about those foreign powers.

Do the U.S. officials believe that the Russians are behind this or any of the other hacks that have been related so far?

MARGARET WARNER: Yes.

First of all, they established that they were behind the hacks you mentioned earlier, the DNC and the DCCC, and that there are two sort of outfits, what is called Fancy Bear — it’s a nickname — and one is Cozy Bear.

One is linked to the old KGB called the GRU and one is linked to military intelligence. And I was told by cyber-experts who have been involved in these investigations that these voter database hacks are the work of so-called Fancy Bear, which is the one side to Russian military intelligence.

This is the same outfit that, in Ukraine, in Ukrainian elections two years ago, penetrated the database of the Ukrainian election authorities and tried to switch the actual plate that showed who was winning where. They didn’t succeed, but the fake plate that showed someone else won did end up on Russian TV in Russia.

HARI SREENIVASAN: That’s almost like a Dewey wins sign.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, exactly.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson said this morning that by design almost, or at least by reality, 9,000 different precincts that we have, they don’t all use the same system, don’t have the same databases, so there is not a direct threat in manipulating the overall result.

MARGARET WARNER: He’s actually right about that. It’s a crazy system and, as he said, 9,000 different precincts.

But there is an Internet connection at some point, when most of them report to the central commission. Well, that can always be checked back. The other vulnerability, though, is some states still use voter touch-screen machines that leave no paper audit trail.

So,, like in swing state like Pennsylvania, which this is true, in Philadelphia, there is no paper trail, whereas, in Bucks County, there is. So if someone who were really smart, picked swing districts in swing states and put malware in the computer, you know, the voting machines, to go off that day and change every third Clinton vote for Trump or vice versa, it would be impossible to go back later and check.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What’s the government doing about this, considering we’re 39 days away?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, not as much as many cyber-security experts would like.

What Jeh Johnson, the secretary of homeland security, did do right after — right in midsummer, was call all the secretaries of state, had a big conference call, and say, look, there is a big danger out there. One, we want you to — and we’re ready to help.

He sent out a lot of new standards. He said you have to be sure to close all your open doors. A lot of these precincts just don’t have the manpower or the money to do it right. And we will give you technical help.

I was told this afternoon that 18 to 20 of the states have actually asked for and received nightly what’s called cyber-election screening, where they basically run through the system and then they alert, the federal government does, Homeland Security does, and then says to Iowa, you know, by the way, we discovered something funny, you need to patch this.

That said, that doesn’t fix the election machines themselves. So, what they didn’t do, the federal government chose not to do is declare a part of critical infrastructure. That would have given the federal government the ability to go really in and set up standards and also send a message to Russia that this is really a no-no and this is considered grounds for retaliation.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Margaret Warner, thanks so much.

MARGARET WARNER: My pleasure, Hari.

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