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Security

Russia breached 7 states' voter rolls before election, report says

NBC says US intelligence agencies didn't tell states of Russia's role in attacks on election systems. Homeland Security calls the report "inaccurate."

An illustration of the Statue of Liberty superimposed over a purple, blue and green circuit board.

An NBC report says seven states were targeted by hacking campaigns prior to the 2016 election, but none knew Russia was behind the attacks.

James Martin/CNET

Russia gained varying levels of access to voter registration systems and election-related websites in seven states leading up to the 2016 election, according to a report from NBC News. Three intelligence officials told the news outlet that then-President Barack Obama requested a report on hacking attempts on the US election system in the last weeks of his presidency, and that was the analysis they gave him.

Authorities in the states affected -- Alaska, Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, Texas and Wisconsin -- told NBC that US intelligence officials informed them about the attacks but didn't say Russia was behind them. The state authorities and the intelligence officials all said they believe no votes were changed and no voters were taken off the rolls.

A spokesman for the US Department of Homeland Security, which is charged with helping state and local election agencies protect their systems from hackers, called the report "factually inaccurate and misleading" on Twitter.

"As we have consistently said, DHS has shared information with affected states in a timely manner, and we will continue to do so," said the spokesman, Tyler Houlton. "We have no intelligence -- new or old -- that corroborates NBC's reporting that state systems in 7 states were compromised by Russian government actors."

The report highlights the challenges presented by securing the voting systems of the US, which are fractured among states, counties and other localities. That fragmented system could be seen as a benefit, because hackers can't compromise the whole system with one attack. But it also means the federal government has a big job when it comes to detecting hacking campaigns and helping state and local governments defend themselves.

On Tuesday, the departing head of the National Security Agency, Mike Rogers, told US senators that President Donald Trump hasn't given his agency enough power to fight back against foreign hacking campaigns on election infrastructure.

In an interview with CNET, Homeland Security's chief cybersecurity official, Jeanette Manfra, said the question of whether hackers truly "breached" any systems was "a matter of endless debate." There have been no reports of voting machines being successfully hacked, and a scenario in which hackers influence an election by changing votes is "nearly impossible," Manfra said.

However, the perception that voting systems are vulnerable is itself a problem, Manfra noted. If hackers could seize control of a state's public-facing elections website, for example, they could create confusion and distrust.

"It's got nothing to do with actually changing a vote, but you try to get into these different systems, because people don't understand necessarily how all of these pieces are very disconnected," Manfra said.

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