How safe are Illinois elections from hackers?


The election is just a week away and Illinois plans to bring in the National Guard to help secure the vote. Why all the concern? You only have to look back to 2016 when the election voter data base in Illinois was hacked.

The big question now is how prepared are we to ensure voters that our system is secure?

U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley’s job on the House Select Committee on Intelligence offers him a rare look inside the investigation of Russian influence.

He says every U.S. intelligence agency agrees that the Russians tried to interfere in our Democratic process.

“What we’ve learned is they never left and we’re not ready for the next attack,” according to Quigley.

A federal indictment alleges a Russian military officer assigned to Unit 74455, working out of a place the Russians called “The Tower,” hit the database run by the Illinois State Board of Elections.

“After the analysis was done, we realized they were attacking it about five times per second, but it was coming in waves. So, they would hit it like boom-boom-boom,” Steve Sandvoss, head of the state’s election board, said. “Then it just stopped abruptly. It’s like they just shut off the switch.”

An alert IT worker caught the hack, then had to break the news to his boss.

“He said, ‘We’ve been hacked.’ And, I said, ‘How bad is it?’ He said, ‘It’s a hack. All hacks are bad.’ I said, ‘We don’t know the extent of the intrusion, trying to figure out.’ I said, ‘You took the system down?’ And he said, ‘Yes.'” Sandvoss explained.

So what would the Russians want with the Illinois voter registration list?

“It’s not completely clear because there haven’t been any confessions, shall we say. We haven’t captured the mastermind behind it,” Sandvoss said, adding that the hackers got names and in some cases, the last four digits of some Social Security numbers.

“We’re fortunate in that it was only 75,000. I know it sounds like a lot, but you’re talking 7.8 million voters registered in the state,” he said.

The key, he says, is while the voter registration list was hit, there is no evidence that the actual voting machines or any votes were changed.

“So, people were able to go to the polls on Election Day and cast their votes and their votes would count. There was no compromise of that. And we kept saying that over and over again,” Sandvoss said.

Which bring us right back to why — why were the Russians interested in the Illinois voter data base?

“This to them is something like a second Cold War,” Quigley said. “I think what they were really trying to do is attack the integrity of the Democratic process. It’s something that we call ‘The Kremlin Playbook.’”

How vulnerable is our election system? U.S. Rep. Quigley set up a mock election to show how easy it would be to influence the results. The voter card had been infected with malware that actually changed the votes that had been cast. The final count showed the real winner, George Washington, losing to the other candidate by a small but believable count. The key with this demonstration, was access. Sandvoss wouldn’t say it’s impossible, but insisted it would be very difficult for anyone outside of the system to gain that kind of access.

Quigley helped pass a bill to send $380 million in federal money to the states to secure their election processes. Illinois’ share with some state dollars kicked in is about $14 million.

“Now, is that enough? Well no. Any election authority is going to tell you that the machines they are using are old. They’ve been around 15, 18, 20 years. They need to be upgraded,” Sandvoss said.

Instead, the state spent its money on an extensive training program to assist local election officials. And it hired an IT monitor. If all else fails, the state has its old-fashioned backup — a paper trail.

“Hopefully, the November 2018 election will come and go without any interference that will go a long way to alleviating, calming some of the fears that people have. We’re going to do our part. But, people they have to trust. What alternative is there if they don’t,” Sandvoss said.