State and federal officials say they are 'relentlessly' working to protect Florida's election systems

click to enlarge State and federal officials say they are 'relentlessly' working to protect Florida's election systems
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State and federal officials announced Friday they are “relentlessly” working together to protect election systems in Florida from on-going foreign interference.

The law enforcement and elections officials said they don’t want a repeat in 2020 of the 2016 contest, where at least two undisclosed county election systems in Florida were breached. And they asked the public for assistance rooting out those they believe are attempting to weaken confidence in the voting process.

The Florida Department of State, county supervisors of election, U.S. attorney’s offices, the FBI and U.S. Department of Homeland Security are all collaborating on the effort, the officials announced at a press conference Friday.

But while those involved in the effort intend to share knowledge of foreign interference campaigns with each other, the public may be left unaware of the nature of a cyberattack, such as the counties hacked in 2016.

“We are committed to the maximum amount of transparency that is possible,” Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee said at the Friday afternoon media event outside the federal courthouse in downtown Tallahassee. “However, it is important to remember that specific information about defensive measures or cyber-threat indicators cannot be shared publicly, as that would weaken our security posture.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis in May ordered a review focused on cybersecurity, after he was advised by the FBI that election records in two counties were hacked by Russians in 2016.

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Lee said it is important for Floridians to know that investments have been made in the election infrastructure over the past several years. They should also be aware of the strength of the partnership between the state and federal agencies, Lee added.

She also said that information regarding future attacks could be released on a “case-by-case basis, depending upon the nature of the breach, the actor and the information that is involved.”

U.S. Attorney Lawrence Keefe of the Northern District of Florida called the collaboration “unprecedented.”

“We believe that it represents a positive national model for election security,” Keefe said. “We want the people of Florida to know that their government, their whole government at the state, local and federal levels, will maintain the integrity of their election system. We will share information with one another. And we will keep you informed in the days, weeks and months ahead as to what is appropriate about our ongoing efforts to secure our election system.”

The state recently completed its own cybersecurity review, following disclosures of Russian hacking during the 2016 elections. However, details of what was discovered remain under wraps, along with information about system patches and what further multimillion-dollar steps are being taken to protect against future attacks.

Gov. Ron DeSantis in May ordered a review focused on cybersecurity, after he was advised by the FBI that election records in two counties were hacked by Russians in 2016. DeSantis said he was told that the hackers accessed voter-information files, not the systems involved in vote tallying.

Levy County Supervisor of Elections Tammy Jones, the president of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections, said Friday that, while all 67 counties are better prepared than in 2016, the state and federal support is “a tremendous help.”

“I know from my own area that not every county has the resources to provide absolute guarantees,” she said.

Rachel Rojas, FBI Special Agent in Charge in Jacksonville, touted her agency’s “Protected Voices” initiative, intended to help political campaigns, companies and individuals learn about online foreign-influence operations and cybersecurity threats designed to “confuse,” “upset” and “turn Americans against each other.”

Rojas said there have been no successful attacks to manipulate or delete election data, but the foreign efforts “are constantly evolving, using new tools and encrypted applications.”

Apart from cyberattacks against political campaigns and government infrastructure, Rojas said individuals pretend to be U.S. citizens to tactically buy political ads, pump illegal campaign contributions from foreign adversaries, and develop disinformation campaigns on social media.

Lee said in the coming weeks her department and her national counterparts will also release a public education campaign on how to recognize and trust reliable election information.

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