By Beena Raghavendran
Minnesota was one of 21 states whose election systems were targeted by Russian-affiliated hackers before last year's elections, the federal government revealed Friday.
"Entities acting at the behest of the Russian government" made the hacking attempt in the period leading up to the 2016 election, Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon said in a statement. The revelation came from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
State computers recognized the IP addresses that scanned the system and blocked them, so the breach attempt was foiled.
Last year, the federal government told the Associated Press that hackers thought to be Russian agents had targeted more than 20 states before the 2016 elections. Friday's calls from Homeland Security to election officials in 21 states were the first official confirmations of the affected states.
"This afternoon I received a phone call from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security informing me of its determination that Minnesota was among 21 states targeted," wrote Simon, who has overseen a number of security updates to Minnesota's election system. "DHS confirmed to my office that there was no breach and no attempt to breach Minnesota's election system."
The other states confirming that they were targeted are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.
In only a handful of states, such as Illinois, did hackers succeed in penetrating a system, according to U.S. officials.
And there is no evidence that hackers were able to tamper with voting machines. In Arizona, Russian hackers were able to steal the user name and password of a single election official in Gila County, Arizona officials said.
In Minnesota, the 2016 hack wasn't the first time the secretary of state's office has come under attack. In 2009, foreign hackers took control of the office's business website and swapped it for illegitimate links and content.
Homeland Security's disclosure to the states comes as a special counsel probes whether there was any coordination during the 2016 presidential campaign between Russia and associates of President Donald Trump. Trump has repeatedly defied the consensus of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia sought to interfere in the 2016 election for his benefit and again on Friday called the whole thing a hoax.
A call for more vigilance
Reactions across Minnesota on Friday ranged from apprehension for this year's elections to a call for more vigilance. Minnesota DFL Chair Ken Martin said he was "surprised that it would hit so close to home."
Mike Johnson, who leads the master's degree program in security technologies at the University of Minnesota, said the state doesn't adequately fund its cybersecurity.
"We just need to keep investing and moving forward in order to keep up with the bad guys," Johnson said.
This summer, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., introduced legislation to boost U.S. election system security and administration. Her website says that "state and local election officials must have the tools and resources they need to prevent these attacks and ensure that future elections are safeguarded from foreign interference."
The Associated Press reported that U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said it was unacceptable that it took nearly a year after the 2016 election for the federal government to alert states about the attempt to tamper with their election systems. Warner, the top Democrat on the committee investigating Russian meddling in the election, had been pushing the department for months to disclose which states were targeted. He has said the states need that information to effectively strengthen their defenses.
Bill Morris, a retired political science professor from Augsburg University in Minneapolis and a pollster at the Morris Leatherman Co., said Friday's news could lead some to question the worth of voting in this year's elections.
"If we can't be sure that the balloting is fair and honest, more people are going to get turned off and we're going to see low participation," he said.
Joe Peschek, a political science professor at Hamline University in St. Paul, called the hacking attempts "cause for concern." But he added that overall, he has confidence in American election systems.
"Overwhelmingly, election officials around the country -- Democratic and Republican -- feel that the integrity of the elections and the way votes are counted is pretty solid," he said.
The Associated Press and the Washington Post contributed to this report.
(c)2017 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)