NBC News: U.S. intel says Florida among seven states hacked by Russian operatives

NBC News reports that three senior intelligence officials say that Florida, Alaska, Arizona, California, Illinois, Texas and Wisconsin were believed to have had state websites or voter registration systems compromised by Russian-backed covert operatives before the 2016 election.
Russian President Vladamir Putin [AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)]
Russian President Vladamir Putin [AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)]
Published Feb. 28, 2018|Updated Feb. 28, 2018

Earlier this month, NBC News reported that Russians successfully penetrated the voter rolls of several U.S. states before the 2016 presidential election.

The report didn't specify which states had their elections systems breached, so the Buzz asked state officials and local elections officials then if they knew whether Florida had been one of the states hacked.

When asked, however, the Florida Department of State referred the Buzz to a statement it released last year when asked about the security of Florida's voting system in 2016.

"The Department of State was notified by the Department of Homeland Security today that Florida was unsuccessfully targeted by hackers last year. This attempt was not in any way successful and Florida's online elections databases and voting systems remained secure," said Sarah Revell, spokeswoman for the agency that oversees Florida's election system.  "Ensuring the security and integrity of Florida's elections remains our top priority."

Other elections officials said they knew nothing of a breach.

"There was no indication that a County system, or one of our valued partners, had been breached," Christina White, Miami-Dade's elections supervisor.

But according to the latest report by NBC News, there might be a reason why no indication was given. They simply weren't told.

"While officials in Washington informed several of those states in the run-up to the election that foreign entities were probing their systems, none were told the Russian government was behind it, state officials told NBC News."

What exactly happened?

NBC News wouldn't name its sources, saying only that "three senior intelligence officials" said that they "believed" that as of January 2017, top secret intelligence requested by President Barack Obama identified seven states where analysts believe Russian operatives had compromised state websites or databases. Along with Florida, they were Alaska, Arizona, California, Illinois, Texas and Wisconsin.

NBC said classified documents define "compromised" as actual entry into "election websites, voter registration systems and voter look-up systems."

But states aren't rushing to concede that that their systems were breached.

"NBC News reached out to all seven states that were compromised, as well as 14 additional states the Department of Homeland Security says were probed during the 2016 election.

"To this day, six of the seven states deny they were breached, based on their own cyber investigations. It's a discrepancy that underscores how unprepared some experts think America is for the next wave of Russian interference that intelligence officials say is coming."

Only Illinois conceded to NBC that its system was compromised.

According to NBC, "A spokesperson for Florida's secretary of state, Mark Ard, said the state was informed by DHS in September 2017 that Florida had been targeted by hackers in 2016. 'This attempt was not in any way successful and Florida's online elections databases and voting systems remained secure,' Ard said."

Prompted by the NBC report, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gwen Graham urged Gov. Rick Scott to "take immediate action."

"Governor Rick Scott cannot sit idly by and continue passing the buck to Trump," Graham said in the statement. "Scott must immediately direct the Florida Department of State to protect our vote in 2018 to prevent the Russians from tampering with our state elections."

Read the story here.

UPDATE (Wednesday 10:14 a.m.): The Department of Homeland Security sent an emailed statement from Tyler Q. Houlton, the agency's acting press secretary, disputing NBC's story:

"NBC's reporting tonight on the 2016 elections is not accurate and is actively undermining efforts of the Department of Homeland Security to work in close partnership with state and local governments to protect the nation's election systems from foreign actors. As we have consistently said, DHS has shared information with affected states in a timely manner, and we will continue to do so. We have no intelligence – new or old – that corroborates NBC's reporting that state systems in seven states were compromised by Russian government actors. We believe tonight's story to be factually inaccurate and misleading. In fact, the formerly classified documents released to Mr. Moss and shown on NBC were working documents based on preliminary information and ongoing investigations, not confirmed and validated intelligence on Russian activities – in any case they do not show what NBC claims they do. The department has been clear and consistent that we are aware of 21 states targeted by Russian government cyber actors leading up to the 2016 election. In nearly all states, only preparatory activity like scanning was observed. We have said it before and will say it again: in no case is there any evidence that votes were changed or that Russian actors gained access to systems involved in vote tallying. Once again, reports using anonymous, outdated, and incomplete information are being misconstrued as fact. We stand by our state and local partners who are working diligently to secure the nation's election infrastructure in 2018 and beyond."