If Russian hackers really broke into Alaska’s election system in 2016, the feds still haven’t told the state

With the 2018 elections around the corner, NBC News published a report today citing anonymous sources who said the U.S. intelligence community believes Alaska was one of seven states “compromised” during the run up to the 2016 election.

That would be news to Alaska Division of Elections Director Josie Bahnke, who said in September of last year that Alaska was one of 21 states that, according to the Department of Homeland Security, was targeted by Russia-backed hackers, but not compromised.

The NBC report, which was based on talks with “three senior intelligence officials,” doesn’t go into detail about the potential impacts on Alaska other than to say “the seven states were compromised in a variety of ways, with some breaches more serious than others, from entry into state websites to penetration of actual voter registration databases.”

It notes that state and federal officials agree that changes weren’t made to votes or voter rolls, but recognizes the disconnect between states and the intelligence officials as “a discrepancy that underscores how unprepared some experts think America is for the next wave of Russian interference that intelligence officials say is coming.”

Today, Bahnke released an additional statement responding to the NBC News story and stood by the current assessment of Alaska’s election system “that efforts were unsuccessful and no election systems were compromised.” She added that “We have not received any additional information from the federal government to dispute this statement.”

The disclosure in September 2017 described the incident as Russia-backed hackers visiting the Alaska Division of Elections public-facing website in October 2016 and not getting any further than that. Today, Bahnke compared the incident to “a robber rattling the door knob or trying to peek in the windows.” She said “scanning a system, versus breaking and entering, are two very different scenarios.”

Alaska Division of Election officials have been holding regular meetings on cybersecurity in preparation for this year’s elections. Alaska was praised in a recent security assessment conducted by the progressive Center for American Progress, which gave Alaska a B grade (no states received an A).

“We have extensive procedures to secure our information, with multiple layers of security which include a combination of people, processes and technologies to help us conduct secure, trustworthy and accurate elections,” Bahnke said in today’s statement.

Why it matters

Today’s NBC News story and the statements from Bahnke don’t offer much certainty on the situation. All we can know for sure is that if the feds have uncovered some evidence that Alaska was indeed compromised in 2016, they haven’t told Alaska’s election officials. If that’s the case, it’s certain to draw connections to President Trump’s insistence that the ongoing story that Russia sought to intervene in the U.S. elections was “FAKE NEWS.”

The current administration has kept information about the hacks close to the chest. The NBC story also notes that it took the Trump administration eight months to contact states after uncovering the attempted hacks. It also said that in a classified meeting between intelligence officials and state election officials “the actual intelligence on state compromises was not shared.”

Comforting.

Bahnke’s full statement

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: February 27, 2018

Alaska and other states reconfirm that they were unsuccessfully targeted in a Russian Cyber Scan in 2016

(Juneau) In response to an NBC TV story that Russia ‘compromised’ seven states prior to 2016 election, Alaska Division of Elections Director Josie Bahnke stated:

“In September 2017, representatives from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officially informed our division that Russian cyber actors made a failed attempt to access the division’s public information website prior to the 2016 General Election.

“At that time, DHS officials stated that Alaska was one of 21 states that possibly were the target of an unsuccessful Russian-affiliated cyber incident in October 2016. We have not received any additional information from the federal government to dispute this statement.

“DHS reported, and we confirmed, that Russian actors scanned our public information website in 2016.  The division immediately informed the public of the issue in a press release on September 22, 2017.

“Many businesses and governments have had threat actors scan systems, which is like a robber rattling the door knob or trying to peek in the windows. But scanning a system, versus breaking and entering, are two very different scenarios. We have extensive procedures to secure our information, with multiple layers of security which include a combination of people, processes and technologies to help us conduct secure, trustworthy and accurate elections.

“We will continue to work collaboratively with the National Association of Secretaries of State and DHS on cyber security issues.”

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