Homeland Security Told States About Russian Hacking Attempts with a Phone Script

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There was one script for states that were probed by Russian hackers and another for those that weren’t, an official said.

The federal government formally notified top election officials in some of the 21 states that were probed by Russian hackers by reading a short script over the phone, a Homeland Security Department official told lawmakers Wednesday.

Homeland Security provided the script to members of the House Oversight Committee late Tuesday after several weeks of requests, Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Ill., said.

The script is 13-sentences long and does not contain any information about specific Russian activities, said Kelly, who is the ranking Democrat on the committee’s information technology panel.

There was a separate script for states that the Homeland Security Department determined were not probed by Russian hackers, said Christopher Krebs, acting undersecretary for the department’s cybersecurity and infrastructure protection division.

Krebs pledged to get more information about the state notifications to Kelly but declined several times to reveal which of the 21 states were probed or to reveal other information that third parties shared confidentially with the department.

Most of the states Homeland Security notified have acknowledged so in news reports. California and Wisconsin have said they were not probed and that Homeland Security’s analysis is incorrect.

Most of the nefarious Russian activity Homeland Security spotted within the 21 states was simply scanning for vulnerabilities, an activity Krebs likened to robbers driving through a neighborhood looking for poorly secured homes.

For a smaller subset of states there was a “compromise on the voter registration side but not in the tallying,” he said.

Homeland Security notified state government officials about Russian probing in advance of the 2016 election, but often did not reach out to election officials, many of whom lacked security clearances.

That fact has drawn criticism from Congress and elsewhere in the wake of the election, which Russian government hackers attempted to undermine with a mix of data breaches and influence operations.

Homeland Security has made good progress securing clearances for top state election officials since the election, Krebs told lawmakers Wednesday.

While those clearances are still waiting, he said, the department is working to declassify the most important cyber threat information and he’s also authorized to grant limited, daylong clearances when necessary.