Unprecedented: Illinois National Guard on standby for election cyber attack

CHICAGO (WLS) -- On Election Day next month in Illinois, hundreds of National Guard troopers will be standing by for action.

If needed, they won't depend on rifles and bayonets but will be armed with laptops and IT expertise.

The unprecedented move comes after cyber attackers, believed to be Russians, hacked the official Illinois voter database before the 2016 presidential election.

"We can have a guardsman-expert dispatched within an hour to anywhere in Illinois. We'll have boots on the ground in whatever county, in whatever election authority, is affected within an hour," said Chuck Scholz, a board member of the Illinois State Board of Elections.

Polling places and election headquarters in any of Illinois' 108 voting jurisdictions would become IT battlegrounds on Tuesday, Nov. 6 if there were to be another cyber attack.

"These are very highly specialized IT personnel that defend the Department of Defense network when we're doing our military responsibility," said their commander, Illinois Army National Guard Major General Richard Hayes.

The National Guard unit wouldn't look like the combat-ready troops sent to Chicago in the late '60s to quell urban violence. Next month, hundreds of troopers will be on standby with special training in election data warfare, aimed at responding to the kind of attack the state faced more than two years ago.

"In July 2016, the Illinois State Board of Elections was the victim of a malicious cyber attack," said Steve Sandvoss, executive director of the Illinois State Board of Elections.

Investigators determined that Russian hackers were the likely culprits of that foreign assault. On Tuesday, Illinois election officials said they could have used such a rapid response team during the 2016 surprise attack on state voter data.

"In the two years since then we learned that the attack on the State Board of Elections was not an isolated incident by a lone actor but part of an extensive operation by the Russian government aimed at eroding voters' confidence in the American elections system nationwide," said Sandvoss.

Now officials say they are better prepared and pledge that the midterm vote will be securely counted even if there is an attack.

"All digital systems are vulnerable. Even well-funded corporate entities like Equifax, Uber, HBO, Sony and Target cannot defend them perfectly all the time. Underfunded election officials face longer odds," admitted Cook County's election director Noah Praetz.

The 2016 hacking is now being described as an "intrusion" by state election officials. They say no voter records were altered and no election results were affected.

Putting the National Guard on standby is an effort to make sure that neither of those things happen next month on Election Day. State Board of Elections chairman William Cadigan said Tuesday that voters should rest assured that their Nov. 6 tallies "will be securely counted."
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