Homeland Security sends officials to Pennsylvania on primary day

Homeland Security sends officials to Pennsylvania on primary day
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A top Department of Homeland Security official met Tuesday with officials in Pennsylvania to discuss election security as voters head to the polls for primaries in the state.

Christopher Krebs, the current acting head of Homeland Security’s cyber and infrastructure protection unit, met with acting Pennsylvania Secretary of State Robert Torres and other officials Tuesday morning. They discussed steps the state is taking to ensure its digital systems are secure on primary day and that officials are prepared to address any issues in the event something does not go as planned.

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Pennsylvania was one of 21 states targeted by Russian hackers ahead of the 2016 presidential election, though Torres insisted Tuesday that hackers merely scanned for vulnerabilities and did not attempt to or successfully breach any state election systems.

The meeting underscores an ongoing effort by Homeland Security to build relationships with states and offer them assistance to secure their voting infrastructure ahead of the 2018 midterms. It took place as voters in Pennsylvania and three other states head to the polls to participate in their respective primaries.

“If I could put one message out there for the voters of Pennsylvania, I want to reinforce the fact that, at all levels of government, we take this seriously,” Krebs said at a press conference following the meeting.

“It’s not just today, or since yesterday, or since 2016. The integrity of the election has always been a priority,” Krebs said. 

Pennsylvania and 16 other states have requested in-depth risk and vulnerability assessments from the department, which require federal officials to spend two weeks on the ground in a state to test the security of their election infrastructure. Officials expect Pennsylvania's assessment to be completed in June.

Homeland Security has endured some scrutiny from Capitol Hill for what lawmakers see as a lack of urgency on the issue. Krebs insisted Tuesday that the department has “really ratcheted up the resources” to conduct the rigorous assessments before the general elections in November. 

“We’re also getting more sensors out there to help understand what activity is happening across state networks,” Krebs said. The department's main concern, he said, is making sure "that the vote counts and is counted correctly." 

The intelligence community’s judgment about Russian interference in the 2016 election has triggered widespread fears that Moscow or other malicious actors could look to meddle in future votes. Top U.S. intelligence officials warned in February that Russia was likely looking to interfere in the 2018 midterms. 

Russian hackers’ targeting of state voting databases and websites was a small part of a broader campaign that leveraged social media and hacked information to undermine confidence in the U.S. democratic process in 2016. On Tuesday, both Torres and Krebs said there are no direct threats to voting systems that have them worried at this time. 

“We don’t have any specific credible intelligence about the midterms or even 2020,” Krebs said.

“But I will say this — I don’t need a specific piece of intelligence that’s going to have me pick up the phone and call Secretary Torres or get in the car and drive up here from D.C. We’re talking this issue seriously regardless of who the threat actor is,” he added. 

Voters in Idaho, Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Oregon head to the polls on Tuesday.