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FBI will start notifying states when hackers hit local elections

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Voters at the polls on Election Day in New Jersey in 2019.


Tayfun Coskun/Getty Images

As the race for the White House ramps up, the FBI is changing its policies so states can better prepare for potential cyberattacks. On Thursday, the federal law enforcement agency said it would expand its notifications about hacks affecting election infrastructure and include state-level officials, as well as local and county authorities. 

Previously, the FBI notified only the affected counties, which carry out elections, not the election officials for the entire state. That became a concern because state election officials certify results and need to know about cyberattacks if they occur.

Election security is a major issue for the 2020 election with the US government looking to avoid cyberattacks similar to those that plagued the 2016 presidential election. Russian hackers successfully infiltrated state election databases, as well as voter databases in two Florida counties. The Department of Homeland Security concluded that cyberattacks didn’t result in altered votes or tampering with voting machines.  

State officials in Florida didn’t learn about the breaches until after then-special-counsel Robert Mueller’s report on election interference was publicly released. Last May, Florida governor Ron DeSantis said state election officials were only briefed by the FBI after the report was released. 

The new procedures mean such delays may be avoided in the future.

“The FBI’s interactions regarding election security matters must respect both state and local authorities,” the agency said in a statement. “Thus, the FBI’s new policy mandates the notification of a chief state election official and local election officials of cyber threats to local election infrastructure.”

The policy change comes as election security efforts are targeted on a local level. The DHS said it’s focusing its outreach to local county officials, who experts said are “the most important part of the entire infrastructure.” 

The FBI’s new policy will give state election officials a better opportunity to watch out for attacks in other counties and to improve collaborative efforts in keeping the election safe from hackers, the agency said. 

“Cyber intrusions affecting election infrastructure have the potential to cause significant negative impacts on the integrity of elections,” the FBI said in a statement. 

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