The Florida Department of State says it has "no knowledge or evidence of any successful hacking attempt at the county level during the 2016 elections."
"Upon learning of the new information released in the Mueller report, the Department immediately reached out to the FBI to inquire which county may have been accessed, and they declined to share this information with us," DOS spokesperson Sarah Revell says in a statement. "The Department maintains that the 2016 elections in Florida were not hacked. The Florida Voter Registration System was and remains secure, and official results or vote tallies were not changed."
The Mueller report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election detailed how the country's military intelligence agency GRU sought access to state and local computer networks by "exploiting known software vulnerabilities on websites of state and local governmental entities."
In November 2016, GRU sent spearphishing emails to over 120 email accounts used by Florida county officials that contained an attached Word document coded with malicious software that let GRU access the infected computer, the report says.
"We understand the FBI believes that this operation enabled the GRU to gain access to the network of at least one Florida county government," the report says. "The [Special Counsel's Office] did not independently verify that belief and, as explained above, did not undertake the investigative steps that would have been necessary to do so."
Orlando Weekly reached out to the FBI for comment but did not receive an immediate response.
The Mueller report also confirmed a previous leak from the National Security Agency to the Intercept showing that GRU targeted employees from Tallahassee-based elections vendor VR Systems, a voting technology company that develops software used at the time by 64 counties in Florida and many local governments across the country to manage their voter rolls.
GRU had "installed malware on the company network" by August 2016, according to the Mueller report.
The 2017 report from Intercept said GRU used the company as a connection to send spearphishing emails to election officials across the country. County election supervisors in Hillsborough, Pasco, Citrus, Clay and Volusia counties previously told the Tampa Bay Times that they had received the email, but only one staffer in Volusia had actually opened it. Volusia officials said the employee did not open the attachment with the malicious software, so their computer system was not compromised.
On Thursday, Volusia County election officials provided the spearphishing email from someone calling themselves "VR Systems Inc" to the Orlando Sentinel. In 2017, the Department of Homeland Security told Florida officials that the state was targeted by hackers, though state officials have insisted those efforts were unsuccessful.
"Since 2016 when elections were designated as critical infrastructure, state and local election officials in Florida have invested millions of dollars in election security," the Department of State says. "These investments, coupled with our strong partnerships with federal and state agencies, has made Florida one of the leading states in the country on election cybersecurity. The Department of State and local election officials will continue our efforts to ensure Florida’s elections in 2020 and beyond are secure."
In 2018, former U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson faced backlash from then Gov. Rick Scott and other state election officials for saying that the Russians "already penetrated certain counties in the state and they now have free rein to move about." Former DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and FBI Director Christopher Wray told Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner in a letter that "we have not seen new or ongoing compromises of state or local election infrastructure in Florida."
Back then, Scott demanded that Nelson provide proof, but Nelson declined to speak further about his statement. On Thursday, now U.S. Sen. Scott's office called on the FBI to release "any and all" information to Florida election officials. In a statement, Scott spokesperson Sarah Schwirian says:
"Bill Nelson made claims about Russian interference without providing any evidence. Senator Scott called on then-Senator Nelson to provide evidence, which he refused to do. The Florida Department of State had no information to corroborate Nelson’s claims and the FBI and Department of Homeland Security did not provide any information to support the claim.
Senator Scott takes the threat of Russian interference in our elections systems seriously. That’s why, as Governor, he invested millions of dollars in cyber security, hired additional cyber security staff, and secured election security grants for all 67 counties in Florida. The FBI needs to provide any and all available information in relation to what is in the report to state elections professionals in Florida and Congress in order to ensure free and fair elections across the nation."
In a statement to Orlando Weekly, Nelson says the Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman and Vice Chairman asked him and Sen. Marco Rubio in June 2018 to send a letter to the state's 67 elections supervisors to "warn them of Russian intrusion in Florida."
"The Mueller Report makes clear why we had to take that important step as well as my verbal warnings thereafter," Nelson says.
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