Even More Evidence That Russian Was Meddling in the 2016 US Election

Pierluigi Paganini September 26, 2017

Evidence that Russian hackers attempted to interfere with the 2016 US Election continues to pile up, DHS notified states whose systems were hit by APTs.

Evidence that Russia attempted to interfere with the 2016 US Election continues to pile up.
Rumours started almost as soon as the 2016 US Election was completed, individuals with the White House have been questioned and even Facebook identified ad campaigns funded by Russian-linked groups that appear targeted to sway voter opinions. This week we find out that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has notified election officials in at least 21 states that they were targeted by Russian-linked groups during the 2016 US Election.

In February of 2017, several States accused the DHS of trying to hack their state electoral systems during the previous months. Indiana, Ohio, Georgia, Idaho all claimed that the DHS had performed security scans of their networks without permission. Kentucky and West Virginia also reported evidence of DHS “security scans” but said that the work was previously authorized. It seems that the scans were not originated by the DHS but by Russian-linked hacking groups.

2016 US Election

In June of 2017, DHS cybersecurity official Jeanette Manfra confirmed that the Department had determined as early as October 2016, “that Internet-connected election-related networks, including websites, in 21 states were potentially targeted by Russian government cyber actors.” In a US Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in July, DHS officials claimed, “the owners of the systems within those 21 states have been notified.” But that is misleading. The DHS does not disclose which States it notified, but some of those states coming forward admit they were not notified until after the July Committee meeting.

Understandably, many people are critical of how long it took the DHS to notify potentially impacted States:

“It’s unacceptable that it took almost a year after the election to notify states that their elections systems were targeted, but I’m relieved that DHS has acted upon our numerous request,” said Virginia Senator Mark Warner, the Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat, who is helping lead the Senate’s investigation into Russia’s election meddling.

The DHS is in a difficult position. In the final months of 2016, State officials and DHS determined that “someone” was scanning for potential vulnerabilities in election-related networks. This is one of the first steps to compromise and happens thousands of times a day.
Attribution — trying to determine who is behind the scanning — is very challenging. Several States suspected the DHS of scanning while it now seems to have been the work of Russian-linked groups. On one hand, the DHS needs to inform targeted States that they are facing an elevated risk. On the other hand, they need to provide meaningful information to allow those States to take appropriate actions. In most cases, it appears no action was required. Arizona admits that hackers obtained the username and password for a County official and Illinois officials confirmed that hackers had breached its voter system. The other 19 States have not identified any successful penetrations of their networks. So far, it appears that the long delay in notifications from the DHS did not impact voters’ information or election results.
According to the Associated Press the 21 States that were notified of Russian-linked security scans against their networks include: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.
About the author:  Steve Biswanger has over 20 years experience in Information Security consulting, and is a frequent speaker on risk, ICS and IoT topics. He is currently Director of Information Security for Encana, a North American oil & gas company and sits on the Board of Directors for the (ISC)2 Alberta Chapter.


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Pierluigi Paganini

(Security Affairs – ATP, 2016 US Election)

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