Russian hackers often used pretty crude techniques in the leadup to the 2016 election. Case in point: The redacted Mueller report released this morning confirms that Russians sent "phishing" emails to 120 Florida election officials and that, troublingly, the FBI believes at least one county fell for the trick. The report does not name the county.
"We understand that the FBI believes that this operation enabled the GRU to gain access to the network of at least one Florida county government," the Mueller report states.
But the public has long known this was likely the case. In June 2017, the Intercept published leaked National Security Agency documents suggesting Russian hackers broke into VR Systems, a Tallahassee-based company that handles voter-roll technology for multiple Florida counties, including Miami-Dade and Broward. After that report became public, VR Systems confirmed to New Times it had been breached but said there was no evidence any election results were changed as a result of the intrusion.
A county spokesperson told New Times that "Miami-Dade County Information Technology Department has searched its email archive back to April 2014 and has no records of emails being received by the County... Miami-Dade County has received no breach notifications from any federal, state, or local law enforcement agencies or breach notifications from county vendors."
There is still no public evidence that Russians messed with Florida's presidential election, but the report is nevertheless more than troubling. (The government employee who leaked the documents to the Intercept — 27-year-old Reality Winner — was sentenced in August 2018 to five years and three months in prison in a case that free-speech advocates warn could have a chilling effect on the First Amendment.)
Former U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson was also lambasted in the press for claiming Russians had hacked into portions of Florida's electoral system. Though Nelson provided no evidence at the time, it appears today's report confirms much of his warning:
The news is just one of many South Florida ties to the Trump-Russia affair: Fort Lauderdale resident Roger Stone has already been arrested for allegedly threatening witnesses in the case. And other players allegedly central to the case, including members of the billionaire Agalarov family, own property in Miami.
Otherwise, the Mueller report appears to be a catastrophe for President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr, who have spent the past few weeks downplaying its conclusions. In reality, it appears Special Counsel Robert Mueller collected reams of damning information about the president, including the fact that members of the Russian government explicitly tried to establish contacts with the Trump campaign and that the Russians believed a Trump presidency would benefit their interests.
"This is the end of my presidency," Trump allegedly said after learning the government had begun investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to Mueller's report. "I'm fucked."
Update: The Florida Department of State issued the following media release this afternoon:
The Florida Department of State 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.
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.
In 2017, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) notified the Department that Florida was unsuccessfully targeted by hackers in 2016. Since 2016 when elections were designated as critical infrastructure, state and local election officials in Florida have invested millions of dollars in election security. 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.
In 2018, former DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a letter to the Florida Secretary of State that “…we have not seen new or ongoing compromises of state or local election infrastructure in Florida…”.
The Department of State and local election officials will continue our efforts to ensure Florida’s elections in 2020 and beyond are secure.
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