Russian military intelligence executed a cyberattack on at least one U.S. voting software supplier and sent spear-phishing emails to more than 100 local election officials just days before last November’s presidential election, according to a highly classified intelligence report obtained by The Intercept. The top-secret National Security Agency document, which was provided anonymously to The Intercept and independently authenticated, analyzes intelligence very recently acquired by the agency about a months-long Russian intelligence cyber effort against elements of the U.S. election and voting infrastructure. The report, dated May 5, 2017, is the most detailed U.S. government account of Russian interference in the election that has yet come to light. While the document provides a rare window into the NSA’s understanding of the mechanics of Russian hacking, it does not show the underlying “raw” intelligence on which the analysis is based. A U.S. intelligence officer who declined to be identified cautioned against drawing too big a conclusion from the document because a single analysis is not necessarily definitive.
… Getting attention and a budget commitment to election security requires solving a political riddle. “The problem we have is that voting security doesn’t matter until something happens, and then after something happens, there’s a group of people who don’t want the security, because whatever happened, happened in their favor,” said Bruce Schneier, a cybersecurity expert at Harvard’s Berkman Center who has written frequently about the security vulnerabilities of U.S. election systems. “That makes it a very hard security problem, unlike your bank account.” Schneier said the attack, as described by the NSA, is standard hacking procedure. “Credential-stealing, spear-phishing — this is how it’s done,” he said. “Once you get a beachhead, then you try to figure out how to go elsewhere.”
All of this means that it is critical to understand just how integral VR Systems is to our election system, and what exactly the implications of this breach are for the integrity of the result.
VR Systems doesn’t sell the actual touchscreen machines used to cast a vote, but rather the software and devices that verify and catalogue who’s permitted to vote when they show up on Election Day or for early voting. Companies like VR are “very important” because “a functioning registration system is central to American elections,” explained Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law. Vendors like VR are also particularly sensitive, according to Norden, because local election offices “are often unlikely to have many or even any IT staff,” meaning “a vendor like this will also provide most of the IT assistance, including the work related to programming and cyber security”—not the kind of people you want unwittingly compromised by a hostile nation state. According to its website, VR Systems has contracts in eight states: California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, New York, North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia.
Pamela Smith, president of election integrity watchdog Verified Voting, agreed that even if VR Systems doesn’t facilitate the actual casting of votes, it could make an alluring target for anyone hoping to disrupt the vote. “If someone has access to a state voter database, they can take malicious action by modifying or removing information,” she said. “This could affect whether someone has the ability to cast a regular ballot, or be required to cast a ‘provisional’ ballot — which would mean it has to be checked for their eligibility before it is included in the vote, and it may mean the voter has to jump through certain hoops such as proving their information to the election official before their eligibility is affirmed.”