Department of Homeland Security: Hackers are probing voting systems

The DHS says hackers have been scanning state election systems, and it urges officials to seek federal assistance on security.

Edward Moyer Senior Editor
Edward Moyer is a senior editor at CNET and a many-year veteran of the writing and editing world. He enjoys taking sentences apart and putting them back together. He also likes making them from scratch. ¶ For nearly a quarter of a century, he's edited and written stories about various aspects of the technology world, from the US National Security Agency's controversial spying techniques to historic NASA space missions to 3D-printed works of fine art. Before that, he wrote about movies, musicians, artists and subcultures.
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2 min read
Hackers stole my vote. The US Department of Homeland Security hopes you'll never have to say that.

Hackers stole my vote. The US Department of Homeland Security hopes you'll never have to say that.

Sean Rayford/Getty Images

"Don't blame me, I voted for the other candidate (but hackers stole my ballot)."

You might chuckle, but apparently that's a bumper sticker we could soon encounter for real -- if election officials aren't careful.

The US Department of Homeland Security issued a statement Saturday saying hackers have been casing state voting systems, and it offered its cybersecurity assistance to any states that request it.

Hack-based threats to the election process "aren't just in the future -- they are here today," the DHS said in a release on its site. "In recent months, malicious cyber actors have been scanning a large number of state systems, which could be a preamble to attempted intrusions. In a few cases, we have determined that malicious actors gained access to state voting-related systems."

Despite that access, the department said it had no evidence of data being manipulated.

The statement follows a letter sent last week to the National Association of State Election Directors by a bipartisan group of congressional heavyweights. The letter encourages the states to get help from the DHS and other agencies.

"We urge the states to take full advantage of the robust public and private sector resources available to them to ensure that their network infrastructure is secure from attack," reads the letter (PDF), signed by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and Senate minority leader Harry Reid.

It also follows an August report that the FBI had found evidence that two state election databases had been infiltrated by foreign hackers and a story last week from CNET sister site CBS News that said a total of about 10 states have had their systems probed or breached.

Aside from those reports, the election season has seen a flurry of headlines about cyberattacks. Last month, documents posted to a self-described hacktivist site appeared to reveal sensitive information on the movements of First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. (The authenticity of the docs has not been confirmed.) Other targets have included former Secretary of State Colin Powell and the Democratic National Committee.

Last month also saw the news that hackers had made off with personal information associated with at least a half billion Yahoo Mail accounts, the largest data breach in history.

This isn't the first time the DHS has spoken out about a cyberthreat to the elections. In August, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said the US government should consider classifying voting systems as critical infrastructure, like power grids or dams, a move that would put election setups under greater scrutiny.

The latest statement from the DHS said that so far 21 states have raised their hands for assistance.