After 2016 election hacks, officials in Florida offer few details on 2020 security

Jeffrey Schweers

Tallahassee Democrat

Published 8: 52 PM EDT Nov 1, 2019

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida state officials joined local and federal authorities Friday in asking the public to trust their ongoing efforts to strengthen Florida’s election system against foreign and domestic threats leading up to the 2020 elections, but they refused to give any details.

“We are committed to the maximum amount of transparency as possible,” Secretary of State Laurel Lee told more than a dozen reporters at a 30-minute Tallahassee news conference hosted by Larry Keefe, U.S. Attorney for Florida’s northern district.

She dodged a barrage of questions about why the state won’t say which counties were hacked in 2016, what vulnerabilities her office found during a review of the election systems of all 67 counties, and whether the state would disclose any future breaches or potential breaches to the public.

A week ago, she sidestepped the same questions during a 30-minute interview with the Tallahassee Democrat citing security issues.

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Keefe said Friday’s news conference was ushering in an “unprecedented” collaboration among state, federal and local officials responsible for election security, vowing his office will investigate and prosecute any election tampering.

“We will share information with one another and we will keep you informed in the days and weeks and months ahead as appropriate about our ongoing efforts to secure our election system,” Keefe said Friday.

A day earlier, during a one-hour interview with the Democrat, he said he had a “burning desire to be transparent and keep the public informed,” but there were just some things he couldn’t tell them.

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None of Friday’s other three speakers offered any specifics either.

Levy County Elections Supervisor Tammy Jones, who is also president of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections, said the state scanned for vulnerabilities so they can be addressed. “We are all in a better posture than we were in 2016,” she said.

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The lack of transparency concerns Patricia Brigham, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida.

“With elections looming large and election security such a huge issue, the public has a right to know,” Brigham said Friday. “If you’re trying to convince voters that the election system is safe and secure, transparency is the way to go. If it looks like you have something to hide, you are not putting anyone’s anxieties at rest.”

When a reporter suggested that state and federal officials were saying, “Trust us without verification,” Lee responded, “We are saying much more than that. We invested millions and millions of dollars bolstering, enhancing and strengthening our state’s election network.”

That investment includes $15.5 million in federal election security grants the counties received to upgrade servers, install antivirus software, buy USB sanitizers, build access control systems and provide cyber security training.

“Two things that are essential for the public to know,” she said. “One is the critical investments we have made in the Florida election infrastructure over the past several years. Those have changed the landscape of our election preparedness. The second thing to take away from today’s event is the strength of the partnerships of the agencies here before you.”

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After April’s release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the 2016 election, Floridians learned that Russian agents had attempted to infiltrate the state’s voting systems and conduct a social media disinformation campaign.

A month later, they learned that federal investigators told Gov. Ron DeSantis that Russian agents hacked two county election systems in 2016, but he signed a confidentiality agreement and couldn’t say which two were infiltrated.

He then asked Lee to conduct a review of all 67 county election systems to identify and fix any vulnerabilities.

That review has been completed, Lee said Friday, but she wouldn’t disclose its findings.

“That would weaken our security posture,” she said. “That is the type of information our adversaries could in fact use to attack our infrastructure.”

When reporters asked if that information would be shared with the public so they could confirm for themselves whether the election system was fixed, Lee said, “It’s important to note that the events of 2016 at no time affected election outcomes or vote tabulations or anything of that sort.”

The important thing is that the statewide assessment is completed, the state has more information and has moved onto the stage of “working collaboratively with supervisors of elections and our federal partners to ensure that anything that needs to be addressed or mitigated” will be addressed.

The public still hasn’t been told which counties were breached, nor has the federal government explained why that information continues to be classified.

U.S. Reps. Stephanie Murphy and Michael Waltz of Florida have been highly critical of the lack of transparency and the withholding of what they call critical information to help regain the public trust.

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“The fact that the FBI won’t allow us to publicly release the names of the two counties that were hacked means voters can’t verify their county wasn’t affected,” Murphy told the Tallahassee Democrat last month. “Again, we need to give this information to the people who need it. They have told members of Congress which counties. I have asked to review the classification for release of the material.”

They have introduced a bill in Congress requiring federal officials to alert the state, the county supervisors of elections and the public if a breach occurs.

“Information about future breaches will certainly be shared among the supervisors of election and the Department of State, and of course our law enforcement partners,” Lee said.

Whether that information will be shared with the public is unknown.

“We will make a determination about those on a case-by-case basis depending on the nature of the breach, the actor and the information that is involved,” Lee said.

The only information she said the department would not share with respect to any breach or compromise “is information that as mentioned before either would be specifically related to defense measures, cyber threat indicators or information deemed classified by our federal authorities.”

Follow Jeff Schweers on Twitter at: @jeffschweers

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