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DHS examining cybersecurity threats in advance of 2016 election

By Eric DuVall
DHS examining cybersecurity threats in advance of 2016 election
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson appears at a national security meeting in the Oval Office in July. Johnson said Thursday his department is consideirng whether to classify the nation's election apparatus "critical infrastructure" requiring the same level of cyber-protection as the power grid and the financial sector. Pool photo by Dennis Brack/UPI | License Photo

WASHINGTON, Aug. 4 (UPI) -- Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Thursday his department is considering classifying electronic polling stations across the country as "critical infrastructure," entitling them to the same level of cyber-protection as the nation's power grid and financial sector.

Johnson said the federal government has been looking at how to protect electronic polling stations from cyberattacks since before it was revealed the Democratic National Committee had been hacked, likely by Russians, representing a serious foreign cyber intrusion affecting the 2016 presidential election.

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While federal officials have yet to officially point the finger for the DNC hack at the Russians, The New York Times reported Thursday that intelligence officials have a "high level of confidence" the individuals behind the DNC hack have ties to the Russian government.

"We should carefully consider whether our election system, our election process is critical infrastructure, like the financial sector, like the power grid," Johnson told reporters in Washington. "There's a vital national interest in our electoral process."

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The nation's election infrastructure -- and the security of it -- has not undergone significant changes since passage of the Help America Vote Act in 2002, which Johnson said "raised the bar" for security, but is now outdated.

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Overhauling security for national elections poses a unique set of challenges. There are more than 9,000 government jurisdictions responsible for administering elections across the country and each state has its own broad protocols, software, hardware and security infrastructure to administer elections.

The broad landscape makes it impossible to enact national standards in the three months prior to the 2016 election, Johnson said, though the Department of Homeland Security is preparing a "best practices" document that would offer general guidelines for elections workers on how to prevent cyberattacks and other forms of election fraud.

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While the massive and varied elections infrastructure -- which is set forth in the Constitution, which tasks individual states with carrying out elections -- makes the system difficult to overhaul in a uniform fashion, it also serves as a form of protection in its own right. Because there is no one system, it makes it more difficult for would-be hackers to identify uniform weaknesses to penetrate.

"That varied infrastructure and those different systems also pose a difficult challenge to potential hackers," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. "It's difficult to identify a common vulnerability."

The Democratic National Committee has acknowledged it was the subject of a year-long intrusion by hackers who gained access to internal emails, election data and biographical and financial information about wealthy party donors.

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When a portion of those emails surfaced on the eve of last week's Democratic National Convention, it proved immensely embarrassing to DNC staff, who were revealed to be openly scheming on behalf of Hillary Clinton in her primary campaign against Sen. Bernie Sanders despite the DNC's mission as a neutral arbiter in party primaries.

The fallout from the email leak prompted DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz and CEO Amy Dacey to step down and several top staff members to apologize and face disciplinary action.

The email leak -- which appeared timed to be maximally harmful to Democrats as they attempted to project party unity during the convention -- also proved to be an aggravation for Clinton, who had worked for weeks to earn the support and endorsement of Sanders and his millions of supporters, some of whom expressed deep skepticism of Clinton and the party establishment.

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