Russian hackers tried unsuccessfully to access Washington state’s election systems before the 2016 general election, federal officials told the state Secretary of State’s Office.
OLYMPIA — For several months before the 2016 general election, the Washington Secretary of State’s Office communicated with federal officials about suspicious internet activity against the state’s elections websites.
“We knew people were trying to get in,” Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman said.
But only on Friday did state and federal officials make it clear that Russian hackers had tried — unsuccessfully — to breach the state’s voter computer systems.
That news came in a call to Wyman from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, she said.
The federal agency told elections officials in 21 states that hackers had targeted their systems. Other states included Oregon, Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, Virginia and Wisconsin.
Federal officials said most of the targeting was preparatory activity such as scanning computer systems.
The targets included voter-registration systems but not vote-tallying software. Officials said there were some attempts to compromise networks but most were unsuccessful.
Only Illinois reported that hackers had succeeded in breaching its voter systems.
Friday’s announcement came as a special counsel probes Russia’s role in the 2016 election and whether Russia coordinated with associates of Donald Trump during the presidential campaign.
The news caught some Washington state lawmakers by surprise, and it raised questions about the intent of the attempted attacks and to what extent Washington officials were aware of them.
Others questioned why it took so long for federal officials to tell the states that Russian hackers had targeted them.
“Kind of late,” said Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute in New York.
In a statement, Karen Hobert Flynn of Common Cause called the revelation “troubling on a number of levels.”
“First it should never have taken the federal government so long to share this information with the targeted states,” said Flynn, president of the government-watchdog group based in Washington, D.C.
Homeland Security spokesman Scott McConnell said in a statement that his agency is working with states “to refine our processes for sharing this information while protecting the integrity of investigations and the confidentiality of system owners.”
‘Looking for weaknesses’
Wyman said it isn’t yet known exactly what hackers were after. But “they were looking for weaknesses,” she said, including in the state’s voter-registration systems.
The state is confident, however, that no one actually pierced the systems, she said.
Tara Lee, spokeswoman for Gov. Jay Inslee, said in an email that the governor’s office learned before the November election of attempts to penetrate the systems.
But Lee said, “It was not clear at the time that those hacking attempts were done by Russians.”
Starting in June 2016, the Secretary of State’s Office had been in contact with Homeland Security about suspicious activity at its websites, Wyman said.
The office began sharing with FBI and Homeland Security officials information about possible hacking attempts, she said. That included IP addresses, which are strings of numbers used to identify computers on the internet.
“They would send this IP address that was a problem in other states, so we would block it,” Wyman said. And her office sent the federal agencies IP addresses that “might not look normal.”
Wyman said she pressed federal officials earlier this year to share more details with the states.
McConnell, the Homeland Security spokesman, said his agency “does not publicly disclose cybersecurity information shared between the department and its partners.”
Bloomberg News reported in June that during the 2016 elections, hackers hit voting systems or databases in 39 states.
Washington was not hit in that effort, the Secretary of State’s Office said June 13.
When asked by a reporter whether Washington was targeted by hackers in any way — and if not, how did the agency know for sure — Wyman spokesman Erich Ebel said, “We have no confirmed reports of our system being compromised and we don’t expect any.”
Ebel on Friday said he wasn’t aware then that the Secretary of State’s Office had been communicating with federal agencies about suspected Russian hacker IP addresses.
Likewise, a report that same day in The Stranger newspaper quoted Lee as saying the governor’s office had no evidence the state was being targeted by Russian hackers.
The state Office of Cyber Security was aware of at least one hacking attempt during the 2016 election cycle, according to office spokesman Andrew Garber.
State Chief Information Security Officer Agnes Kirk was unavailable Friday to comment, said Garber, who did not have further details on his office’s knowledge of election-hacking attempts.
Three state lawmakers who sit on legislative committees overseeing elections said they were unaware of the hacking attempts.
“I’m wondering, when did we all know this, and what does the actual data say?” said Sen. Mark Miloscia, R-Federal Way, who chairs the State Government Committee.
Sen. Sam Hunt of Olympia, the ranking Democrat on that committee, hadn’t heard of the hacking attempt either. “I guess this was a real test, and we passed it,” Hunt said.
Rep. Zack Hudgins, D-Tukwila, said he didn’t know about these hacking attempts until Friday.
“It does seem like this is really late in the game, but perhaps Homeland Security has reasons for that,” said Hudgins, chair of the House State Government, Elections & Information Technology Committee.
It’s important to distinguish between attacks on vote-counting systems and other tools like voter-registration databases, said Norden, the Brennan Center staffer.
In Washington, vote counting is handled by the counties, not the state.
With breaches in voter-registration systems, officials should have a chance to stop any manipulation before it actually changes a vote, said Norden, who earlier this year co-authored a report titled “Securing Elections From Foreign Interference.”
For Washington, “I think the important news, which is good news, is that they were unsuccessful,” said Norden. The information states collect on hacking attacks can help deter intrusions down the road, he added.
Wyman said her office will continue to focus on training for both her staff and county elections officials to safeguard against hacking attempts.
She and her election staffers, as well as IT staff, are also getting security clearances “so we can have more robust conversations” with federal officials, Wyman said.