Election officials hoping county clerks can stay ‘one step ahead’ of potential saboteurs

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — To beat the Russians, you have to get out and vote.

Those are the words of West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, echoed by Matt Masterson with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The two are in Morgantown meeting with county clerks from across West Virginia to discuss voting security, particularly in light of the ongoing investigation into the involvement of the Russian Federation in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election.

“They are trying to break into the system, and it could be something as subtle as changing R’s to D’s and D’s to R’s,” Warner said Monday on MetroNews “Talkline” with Hoppy Kercheval. “Imagine, if you’re a registered Democrat and you go in and they say, ‘Here’s your Republican ballot.’ You don’t want to vote that, you want to vote the Democrat ballot.”

But if somebody’s gotten into the registration system and meddled with the information, now you’ve got a problem.”

That’s not just realistic in theory, Warner said. Public reports indicate Russian hacking attempts did get into at least one precinct.

“Over 100,000 names being taken off that registration database,” he said.

Warner also said the ecosystem surrounding voting — vendors who provide certain services in particular — are all facing cyber intrusion.

“They are all under constant attack.”

Of course, simply driving up voter turnout isn’t the only answer. Matt Masterson said it requires extensive training.

“We’re going to be talking about a variety of things and really trying to empower election officials, whether at the state or local level, to be IT managers,” he said. “To understand their systems, understand the risks of their systems, how to secure their systems, how to train their people.”

“In any IT management challenge, people are the greatest weakness. We can secure systems, but training and making sure everyone’s aware about phishing campaigns and targeted attacks against them is critical.”

Phishing campaigns can include designing websites that look eerily similar to commonly used sites — like Facebook or Google — and making them convincing enough for a user to put their password into the third party site, which is actually a decoy. Once that occurs, a potential hacker can gain access to passwords and other data. A campaign manager for Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign fell pray to a similar means of hacking.

“It is a huge challenge, and the key is to do the basics, to take the steps necessary that we know can help secure the process,” Masterson said. “Whether that’s awareness about e-mail and phishing, just making sure you’re not clicking those links or opening those attachments, updating and patching your systems. Those are cleaning up or solving known vulnerabilities or simply just upgrading your systems, which I know here in West Virginia Secretary Warner is working with clerks to do.”

Warner said his office has developed a set of standards to keep West Virginia’s voters secure.

“We use the words protect, detect, and correct,” he said. “We want to protect our systems first with firewalls. We want to detect it quickly, and that’s by having this top secret person from the National Guard watching it on a daily basis. And then, if something does happen, you need to correct it.”

These are safeguards that Warner has confidence in, but both he and Masterson agree that it doesn’t address a different type of hacking — the disinformation campaign the Russian government is accused of financing.

“They started to play three dimensional chess while we were back here worrying about checkers,” said Warner. “We were worried about that one machine getting hacked, that’s not where they were going. They know our machines are air gapped and so forth. The systems are secure. What they started to do was work on the psychological operation to sow the distrust, to look at the fissures in our society — Republicans versus Democrats, conservatives versus liberals, blacks and whites, that sort of thing.”

“Then they tried to magnify that to get us to go at one another.”

Both men praised the resiliency of the hardware and the software, but said watchdogs will be watching closely for Russian interference similar to what took place in 2016.

County clerks from 53 of the 55 counties in West Virginia will meet with Warner and Matheson.

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