State election officials recount their surprise and alarm at 2016 Russian hacking

Elisabeth Buchwald/MarketWatch

From left, Paul Pate, secretary of state of Iowa; Lori Augino, director of elections for the Washington Office of the Secretary of State; Noah Praetz, former Cook County, Illinois, election commissioner; and Matthew Masterson, a senior director of cyber security at the Department of Homeland Security, served on a panel on election ballot security at the National Governors Association annual meeting.

State election officials on Friday recounted their surprise and alarm at the Russian hacking during the last presidential election as they discussed ways to prevent any future tampering.

Speaking at the annual National Governors Association conference in Washington, D.C., Elaine Manlove, state election commissioner of Delaware, said she was stunned to discover that her state was a subject of Russian election interference in 2016.

“I never expected a small state like Delaware to be a target,” she said.

Though Homeland Security ensured her that the attempt to hack into their voter registration system was unsuccessful, the state has beefed up its cybersecurity teams, especially leading into the next presidential election.

Matthew Masterson, now a senior adviser for the Department of Homeland Security‘s cybersecurity unit, was a commissioner of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission in 2016. He said his team detected suspicious activity and alerted the DHS.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that the DHS literally didn’t know who to call to tell them about the activity that was witnessed.”

In their defense, he admitted they didn’t know all the right people to contact themselves.

“We didn’t call all of the right people,” he said. “State election directors weren’t even on the call list at the time.”

Leading into 2018, he said he made an active effort to traveling to each state to meet with election representatives. “We went from not knowing who to call to having information sharing with all 50 states with our information analysis center and intrusion detection modeling infrastructure used in 46 states.

By far the biggest area of improvement he said was improving visibility and opening lines of communication to state and local election officials.

On election night 2018 he said that more than 600 state and local officials utilized an online chat room to report malicious activity directly to homeland security advisors.

“As we look at 2020 it’s incumbent on us to continue to provide that value. We can’t back down on that mission we have to double down and support those state and local officials and that’s exactly what we’re going to do,” Masterson said.

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