Illinois State Board of Elections left without IT chief week before Illinois primary

CHICAGO (WLS) -- The ABC7 I-Team has learned that Matt Emmons, Illinois State Board of Elections IT director, has departed for a job in private industry.

After authorities said the state's voter registration database was breached by Russian attackers in 2016, resulting in the theft of several hundred thousand records, Emmons helped coordinate security operations before the midterm elections.

"The most sophisticated threats we are facing are coming from outside the country," Emmons told StateTech, an online government technology site, in 2018. "We consider the threat of nation-state actors and their near limitless resources the most threatening issue today. Most federal law enforcement agencies believe the foreign meddling with our election systems is going to continue."

Emmons explained that the first task after the breach was to ensure that there was no permanent hacking stake in the Illinois election system.

"In the weeks and months after the attack, we worked with the FBI and DHS to confirm the attack was limited to the exfiltration of data," Emmons said.

Now Emmons is gone a week before the 2020 Illinois primary, having taken a position that is said to be in the insurance industry.

He leaves at a particularly sensitive time for Illinois election officials.

"All it's going to take is any type of cyber incident at any type of election authority anywhere in the United States for this to erupt into a national story," said election board spokesman Matt Dietrich last month.

After a federal investigation of the 2016 hacking attack, U.S. authorities charged a Russian military group with penetrating the state's voter registration database in the summer before the presidential election. It's still unknown why the hackers targeted us.

Against that backdrop, state election officials rebuilt the election cybersecurity unit including the hiring of four new cybersecurity specialists the past 18 months. Among them, Chief Information Security Officer Jeremy Owens who now oversees cyberprotection. Owens reports directly to the executive director of the state election agency.
Emmons' 11th hour departure leaves the election bureaucracy without an IT director-although state board officials tonight downplay his leaving a week before the primary and say the department is "robustly staffed."

Emmon's resignation is not the only curveball faced by state election officials. An Illinois National Guard specially trained cybersecurity unit based in Bloomington tasked with helping defend against Election Day intrusions is having to train replacements.

I-Team reported last month that standing National Guard cyber unit will be deployed near Washington D.C. in the fall, resulting in the need for new staff.

"We're very confident in the team that we have that we'll be able to support this going forward," said Brig. Gen. Richard Neely, Illinois National Guard. "What we're really trying to do is build the best defense we can."

"All we can do is hope we're staying one step ahead of hackers or others who would want to create any kind of mischief," said Dietrich in February.

Responding to an I-Team message, former IT director Emmons said late Monday only that he's left state government "for a new job opportunity." State election officials say cyber security concerns them all the time-not just when they have lost their IT chief. Once the primary election has passed they plan to begin a full-scale search for a new IT director.
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