After Illinois attack by Russian hackers in 2016, feds spotlight state in 2020

The Illinois primary election is one month from this date and all eyes will be on voting security here after Russian hackers infiltrated state computers in 2016.

"If we learned anything, I think, through 2016 and the Russian interference with our elections, it's no single organization, no single state, no locality can go at this problem alone," said Christopher Krebs, cybersecurity director for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

In DHS' new strategic plan for election security, titled "#Protect 2020 Strategic Plan," a new Illinois program is on display as an apparent model for the nation. If anything, Illinois as an example of solid election security plans is a quick turnaround from a sucker punch attack on the state's voter database in 2016.

No one knew at the time where it came from, but in the months after the attack twelve Russians were indicted on charges that they engineered the plot which included Illinois.

Four years later, Illinois is now among states enlisted to pioneer DHS' "Last Mile" program that depends on local and state officials to act as final barriers against a cyber-calamity on Election Day.

Illinois' Statewide Terrorism and Intelligence Center (STIC) headquartered in Springfield is the command post for election security here. The I-Team had an exclusive tour of the STIC in late 2018, inspecting teams of state and local officers, hunched over computers and tasked to monitor intelligence streams for evidence of foreign probes, tampering or attacks.

The new DHS report on 2020 preparations and recommendations features an Illinois "Election Day Emergency Response Guide," that for the first time outlines "red flags" for authorities and poll workers to prevent an attack.

According to the Illinois response guide, red flags are:

Voter lingers around voting equipment for an unusually long period of time and/or attempts to tamper with the equipment

Email containing long hyperlinks and/ or attachments with no additional information

Email message from an unrecognized sender trying to persuade you to click on a link or open an attachment

Unexplained or unauthorized activities occur on election system software

Software operates slower than usual or frequently freezes or crashes

DHS is encouraging other states to follow Illinois' lead and focus on four key objectives to secure the elections from hacking and other interference by protecting election infrastructure, assisting political campaigns, increasing public awareness about foreign intrusion, and facilitating the flow of information on vulnerabilities and potential threats between the public and private sectors.

Homeland security officials released their plan just a day after being stung by a top federal watchdog agency that cited DHS' lack of election safeguards.

The Government Accountability Office in a report to Congress said DHS's Cybersecurity Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) was behind on its plans for elections security. The next day DHS released its security blueprint that includes the heralding if Illinois' strategy.

Election security concerns are not just technological.

On Monday night at ten the ABC7 I-Team looks into "Influence Campaign," the effort that targets not just computers-- but you the voters.

"It's a low and slow campaign where you feel really connected to these groups and then slowly your opinion is influenced in a different direction," said Anita Nikolich, a computer science research professor at Illinois Tech.

On ABC7 at 10 pm: What Illinois is doing to protect you in the days leading to the primary and before the November election.
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