FBI Warns Florida Counties of 'Malicious' Attacks on Election Systems

The call happened just two days after FBI Director James Comey told Congress that there had been more “attempted intrusions” on U.S. voter registration databases.

by Kristen M. Clark, Michael Auslen and Steve Bousquet, Miami Herald / October 3, 2016
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(TNS) — Officials with the Federal Bureau of Investigation held a secret conference call with all 67 county supervisors of elections in Florida on Friday afternoon to discuss the security of voters’ ballots ahead of the November election.

One elections supervisor told the Herald/Times that the FBI informed supervisors of “a malicious act found in a jurisdiction” in Florida, but he stressed “we’ve not been hacked” and nothing was found to have happened at the state level, such as with Florida’s voter registration system.

“It was a good call in that they were proactive, and we need to have federal and state authorities working together,” Leon County Elections Supervisor Ian Sancho said. “I would warn people against jumping to any conclusions. … The positive and aggressive discussion we had is exactly what we need to do to be secure for Nov. 8.”

Florida Department of State spokeswoman Meredith Beatrice acknowledged the department “participated in an informational call related to elections security” that the FBI convened.

“As we near the general election, Secretary of State Ken Detzner and the Department of State are in regular contact with all of our federal and state partners as it relates to elections security,” Beatrice said in an email. “We currently have no indication of a Florida-specific issue.”

The call happened just two days after FBI Director James Comey told Congress that there had been more “attempted intrusions” in U.S. voter registration databases and that the agency was looking “very, very hard” at whether Russian hackers were trying to disrupt the fall election.

Sancho said Florida’s elections supervisors were “asked to be vigilant ahead of the election.” However, both he and Polk County Supervisor Lori Edwards told the Herald/Times that supervisors on the call were instructed not to comment to reporters. Specifically, they were told that information about a possible security breach was protected by a state law that makes records about “suspected or confirmed information technology security incidents” confidential.

But Sancho said he spoke out because the FBI needs to have “a little more openness and clarity.”

“I think the truth is helpful, and not hurtful, in instances like this,” he said. “In security and espionage secrecy might be a great thing. In the area of elections, secrecy is a poison pill.”

Seminole County Election Supervisor Mike Ertel said it’s essential that officials make sure the state’s elections are secure because the eyes of the nation are likely to be on Florida on Nov. 8.

“A successful attack on any one county will cause a lack of faith in the process across the entire state and thus the entire country so we need to be extra vigilant, not just because it’s an election but because it’s an election taking place in Florida, which is the largest swing state,” Ertel said.

The call reportedly lasted a half hour and was led by a special agent from the FBI’s Jacksonville field office. FBI spokeswoman Amanda Warford Videll confirmed late Friday that bureau and Homeland Security officials hosted the conference call “to address questions regarding the security of election systems and to share information regarding the general nature of the cyber threat.”

"FBI and DHS continue to work closely with state officials to assist them in safeguarding their election infrastructures," Warford Videll said in an email.

Other county elections supervisors — normally open and willing to talk — are unusually tight-lipped. Several reached by the Herald/Times wouldn’t discuss the call or even confirm it happened.

“I just can’t get into it,” said Chris Chambless, Clay County elections supervisor and president of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections. “This is nothing that voters should be concerned about regarding security, either from the technical standpoint or registration standpoint.”

“I cannot confirm or deny that,” Pinellas County Elections Supervisor Deborah Clark said. “This is, as I understand it, a protected conversation and I was asked not to discuss it, so I shall not.”

Pasco County Elections Supervisor Brian Corley said: “Absolutely not. I can’t speak at all. This may be the first time I’ve ever said this but: No comment.”

The morning of Florida’s Aug. 30 primary election — after voter systems in Arizona, Illinois and two other states were reportedly breached — Detzner, the state’s top election official, said Florida had precautions in place but had not been contacted by the FBI about possible hacks.

“We have paid attention to this regardless of any call or contact with the FBI,” Detzner said then. “I have seen these reports in the past, but we have put in place all the safeguards we feel are needed for a secure election.”

Friday’s call came amid broader concerns of hackers targeting voting systems across the country. Hackers have targeted the voter registration systems of more than 20 states in recent months, a Department of Homeland Security official told the Associated Press on Friday.

In Florida, military and overseas ballots have already been sent, and supervisors of elections are required to send their vote-by-mail ballots next week.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

©2016 Miami Herald Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.