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Florida spends millions on cybersecurity after 2016 hacks of election offices

Officials say new safeguards will prevent issues
Posted at 4:30 PM, Nov 02, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-02 18:32:07-05

LARGO, Fla. — After hackers targeted Florida county election offices in 2016, the state invested millions to upgrade election security.

I-Team investigator Adam Walser is uncovering where the money went and some of the new security measures counties are using to make sure your vote counts.

Even before polls open on November 3, the 2020 election has made history

“We have the highest registration ever, we have the most mail ballots ever requested and cast thus far. It’s a huge election,” said Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Julie Marcus.

She says her office is not taking any chances when it comes to security.

“We’re putting resources into detecting, monitoring, and being able to recover and respond,” Marcus said.

Last year, the Mueller investigation uncovered that in 2016 the Russian military intelligence agency.

GRU “sent spear-phishing emails to over 120 email accounts used by Florida county officials.”

State officials say two Florida counties were hacked, but did not reveal which ones.

“What the bad guys were after at that point was actually the database. That’s what they were chasing, the voter database,” said Guy Garrett, Assistant Director of University of West Florida’s Center for Cybersecurity, which helped state election officials identify and fix vulnerabilities.

“Fortunately, we were able to get dollars through grants in the legislature to address those problems,” said Garrett.

Florida invested millions

Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee oversaw the distribution of $14.6 million in election security grants to Florida’s 67 counties.

“We have invested millions of dollars and have developed crucial partnerships with the nation’s top cybersecurity experts, such as the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI,” Lee said in a video posted on the Florida Secretary of State’s YouTube channel.

But elections supervisors were required to sign confidentiality agreements regarding exactly how that money would be spent.

“The one thing you don’t want to do is tell those bad actors where to look while you’re trying to fix the problem. It’s like having a hole in a fence and putting up a sign saying ‘enter here,’” Garrett said.

While elections supervisors can’t give specifics, they are saying most of the money went to cybersecurity… including training, new servers and monitoring systems.

Hackers only need to be right once

“The bad guys only have to be right one time. We have to be right 100 percent of the time,” said Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley.

“Hackers are going to make an attempt. The question is, can you detect them? And when you detect them, can you prevent the attack or very quickly stop what’s going on? “ Garrett said.

In Pinellas County, Supervisor of Elections Marcus says the tabulation system, which counts votes, can’t be hacked.

“That system is completely off-line. It is not connected to the internet in any way. And it’s protected under multiple layers of security,” Marcus said.

She says ballots that have come in through the mail or through early voting have already been counted.

“On election day, you’re looking at maybe 7:03, 7:05, supervisors will be able to push out all the mail ballots that have been tabulated up through about 6 p.m. election night,” Marcus said.

If there’s a computer problem, the county still has the original paper ballots.

“With that paper trail, we’ve got a real countermeasure that electronic hackers can’t get to,” said Garrett.

Marcus says new electronic voter rolls can be used to prevent fraud.

“Once you swipe and you get checked in, you’re then a part of the system and if your mail ballot were to come in, the system would say you’ve already voted,” Marcus said.

Deputies, barriers and physical security protocols

Physical security measures, like deputies at polling sites, also protect your vote.

“We do have sheriff’s deputies here while we’re tabulating ballots. We have them help escort the ballots up to ballot lockers. We have security surrounding where ballots are kept,” Marcus said

New metal barriers purchased with grant money protect poll workers.

And while an arsonist burned ballots in Boston, Marcus says security procedures prevent that from happening here.

“All of our ballot drop-off locations are secure. And they are manned by two deputized elections employees at all times,” she said.

And Marcus says the estimated 400-thousand residents who voted by mail can make sure their votes are counted by simply going online.

“Our sole responsibility is to the voter. And to ensure that they have a positive voting experience, that they have confidence in the process,” she said.

To check the status of your mail-in ballot in Florida, click here.

For other important information you need to know about voting on election day, click here.

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