Russian attempts to hack key American election systems are more advanced than first thought, according to Homeland Security officials on Wednesday.
In a public hearing into election hacking held by the US Senate Intelligence Committee, the Department of Homeland Security's acting director of the cyber division, Dr Samuel Liles, claimed that the electoral systems of 21 as-yet-unnamed states were tested by hackers from the Russian government in October last year.
The attackers used a variety of publicly known exploits and software vulnerabilities to try to get into election registration and management systems, but not the vote tallying equipment itself. Liles said that of the 21 states that were probed, only a few actually got cracked. He opined that this was probably a preliminary run looking for vulnerabilities.
"A small number of the networks were successfully exploited," he said. "They made it through the door."
Jeanette Manfra, acting director of Homeland Security's national protection and programs directorate, backed up Liles' claims. She testified [PDF] that websites and computer networks were targeted and that some intrusions did take place. However, in agreement with her colleague, she stated that the actual voting tallies from the 2016 election hadn't been compromised.
"We assessed that multiple checks and redundancies in US election infrastructure – including diversity of systems, non-Internet connected voting machines, pre-election testing, and processes for media, campaign, and election officials to check, audit, and validate results – make it likely that cyber manipulation of US election systems intended to change the outcome of a national election would be detected," she said.
The vice chairman of the committee, Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), expressed frustration at the witnesses, however, when they refused to disclose the states that had been hacked. He said such secrecy was unhelpful and that he would be trying to find out the truth.
Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) also said that he didn't agree with all of the secrecy. He said his constituents were worried that their votes didn't matter if the Russians were getting involved in hacking.
But no answers were forthcoming. Panelist Bill Priestap, assistant director of the FBI's counterintelligence division, said [PDF] that his agency has not made an assessment of how much the Russian activity had influenced the US election result, as yet.
"Russia's 2016 Presidential election influence effort was its boldest to date in the United States," he told the committee.
"Russia's activities included efforts to discredit Secretary Clinton and to publicly contrast her unfavorably with President Trump. This Russian effort included the weaponization of stolen cyber information, the use of Russia's English-language state media as a strategic messaging platform, and the mobilization of social media bots and trolls to spread disinformation and amplify Russian messaging." ®