ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - State and federal officials are disputing a Tuesday report by NBC news that Alaska’s election system was compromised by Russian hackers in 2016. Meanwhile, a state senator is calling for an oversight hearing to find out what happened.
“It’s an assault on our democracy, it’s a foreign nation that is attempting to sway our elections here. I think every Alaskan should be concerned about that.” said Sen. Bill Wielechowski (D-Anchorage)
The Department of Homeland Security announced in September of last year that elections networks in 21 states had been targeted by an unsuccessful cyber-attack from an IP address affiliated with Russian actors leading up to the 2016 election.
One of those states was Alaska, where officials said the Division of Elections’ public information website was scanned by the hackers but there had been no data breach. DOE director Josie Bahnke also pointed out that there is no sensitive information on that website, and a press releasing informing the public of the incident was released the following day.
“Many businesses and governments have had threat actors scan systems, which is like a robber rattling the door knob or trying to peek in the windows,” the Alaska Division of Elections said in a Tuesday statement. “But scanning a system, versus breaking and entering are two very different scenarios.”
However, an investigative report by NBC named Alaska as one of seven states where the elections systems were in fact compromised, citing three anonymous senior intelligence officials. The Department of Homeland Security called the report “factually inaccurate and misleading.”
“We have said it before and will say it again: in no case is there any evidence that voters were changed or that Russian actors gained access to systems involved in vote tallying,” wrote DHS acting press secretary Tyler Q Houlton in a statement. “Once again, reports using anonymous, outdated, and incomplete information are being misconstrued as fact.”
Sen. Wielechowski said he has some questions about that statement.
“They were very finely worded. They said there’s no proof that the voters were affected or the voter tally machines were compromised in any way, but that’s not what was reported on the news report,” Wielechowski said. “What the report actually said was that there were databases and there were websites that were compromised to varying degrees.”
One person quoted in the NBC report is Bradley Moss, an attorney who specializes in national security. He claims that classified federal documents he obtained after a successful lawsuit provide evidence that several state elections systems were compromised.
“The spreadsheets show that there were documented breaches of election networks,” Moss told NBC. “And that there was a widespread concern among several agencies in the intelligence community about the sanctity and integrity of these election networks.”
But Homeland Security says those documents were completely misinterpreted in NBC’s report.
“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,” DHS press secretary Houlton said. “In any case, they do not show what NBC claims they do.”
Alaska’s Division of Elections on Wednesday echoed what’s been said by DHS, saying that there has never been any evidence corroborating NBC’s report.
“Despite the NBC report, there is no evidence that Alaska’s IP system or website were compromised by Russian government actors leading up to the 2016 elections,” said division director Josie Bahnke. “We have double checked with homeland security and our other cyber security partners and they've all assured us that they are not aware of any other attempts successful or unsuccessful to breach Alaska's systems”
Wielechowski says he’s not sure who to believe, which is why he’s calling for an investigation to get to the bottom of what happened.
“I don’t disbelieve what the Lieutenant Governor and the Division of Elections are saying. I think what they’re saying is probably completely accurate, I think they’ve been probably told by the federal government that nothing has happened,” Wielechowski said.
“On the other hand, you’ve got multiple senior intelligence officials who being reported as saying there was a compromise here. So it’s one of those situations where as a lawmaker, as a policymaker, I don’t know who to believe.”
Meanwhile, with another election on the horizon, director Bahnke voiced confidence in the integrity of Alaska’s election systems. She says the division is constantly collaborating with DHS on bolstering cyber security and that several new security measures have recently been implemented.
“Alaska has introduced more robust access control to the state’s voter registration and election management database and these efforts have further reduced the likelihood of unauthorized access to voter data,” she said.
“We have also introduced better intrusion detection processes so in case of a breach these sort of tools would allow us to be aware very rapidly of what was compromised and potentially reduce the scope of that breach.”