Hackers targeted election systems in 21 states, DHS says

Vote-counting systems weren't affected, and few of the states targeted were actually breached, says the Department of Homeland Security.

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Laura Hautala
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The US Department of Homeland Security notified 21 states on Friday that hackers targeted their election systems in 2016. None of the systems targeted were involved in tallying votes, and hackers were able to breach only a small number of networks. 

"As part of our ongoing information sharing efforts, today DHS notified the Secretary of State or other chief election officer in each state of any potential targeting we were aware of in their state leading up to the 2016 election," Homeland Security spokesman Scott McConnell said in statement. 

Despite the news that vote counting systems seem to have been left unmolested, the notifications are one more piece of worrying news about the integrity of the US election system. The word came as Homeland Security continues its investigation into security breaches during the 2016 presidential election. Multiple intelligence agencies have said that the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin was trying to influence the election by hacking the emails of US political campaigns and through misinformation efforts. The DHS news also follows Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's announcement Thursday that his social network will hand over to Congress thousands of election-related ads it believes Russian agents bought on its platform.

This isn't the first time we've heard that hackers tried to get into state election systems before the 2016 presidential elections, which Donald Trump won amid fears the Russian government was trying to influence vote. According to reports from last September, the US government informed election officials that hackers targeted the election systems of more than 20 states, and successfully infiltrated those of four unnamed states. McConnell didn't specify whether the hacking attempts reported today were different from the ones states heard about last year.

Though none of these hacking efforts focused on vote tallying machines, Barbara Simons, president of election security advocacy group Verified Voting, said that doesn't rule out the possibility that hackers tampered with the vote.

"In reality I don't think we know for sure whether votes were changed in 2016," Simons said. Simons' organization is pushing for the use of paper ballots and manual election audits throughout the country.

Arizona was among the states notified Friday. "DHS has let us know that the Russian government was involved in attacks on Arizona's voter registration system in 2016," a government representative said in a statement Friday.

The Associated Press also reported that Alabama, Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin were among the states notified.

McConnell said Homeland Security is leaving it up to individual states to decide whether to tell the public that their voting systems were among those targeted by hackers. "We will continue to keep this information confidential and defer to each state whether it wishes to make it public or not."

First published Sept. 22, 3:49 p.m. PT
Update, 5:24 p.m.: Adds detail.

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