Mo. Secretary Of State On Mitigating Cyberattacks Ahead Of Midterms

Aug 2, 2018
Originally published on August 2, 2018 8:21 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

The Senate has rejected a plan to spend an extra $250 million for state election security. Now, that is despite warnings, including from the director of National Intelligence, that foreign hackers are actively working to disrupt the upcoming midterm elections. So what does all of this mean for states that are working to improve security ahead of November? Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft is with me now.

Secretary Ashcroft, good morning.

JAY ASHCROFT: Good morning. Thank you for having me.

KING: We're happy to have you. So earlier this year, the federal government sent $380 million to states to improve election security. Your state, Missouri, has spent about $7.2 million in that federal grant money. What did you do with it? What specific steps are you taking?

ASHCROFT: Well, we really appreciate the federal government sending that money. To be honest, we haven't spent it all yet. We were the first state to receive that money from the federal government, and we're in the stages of planning how to best spend that money. We're working with local election authorities to see what would best help them.

Some of our counties - they have no technical support. The only technical support they have is from the secretary of state's office. We're working with third-party vendors to come in and try to show us what they believe some of our weaknesses are. Some of them we've brought in to kind of watch our backs, so not only are we watching our election processes and trying to strengthen our defenses, but we have a second or third set of eyes in the public sector that is there in case we miss something somehow. We're continuing to work with the Department of Homeland Security to use their services that they provide.

And something that people maybe not think about as much is beyond those things that are structurally trying to make it more difficult for anyone to intercede inappropriately in our elections, we're also trying to get the word out to individuals that our elections are secure. As election authorities, we not - we have really two things that we have to do. Not only do we have to run elections in a manner that's secure so that, when the voting public goes to the polling place, their votes make the difference. But also, they have to know that.

KING: But how do you...

ASHCROFT: Go ahead.

KING: (Laughter) How do you know that? The director of National Intelligence says hackers are working to undermine this election. You want to convince people elections are secure.

ASHCROFT: (Laughter).

KING: What are the specifics? What are you doing to make sure they're secure?

ASHCROFT: Well, the one thing I would say - there's no disagreement between what I'm saying and what Director of National Intelligence Coats is saying. People are trying to push elections in one way or another. That's always happened, unfortunately, if you look back in history. But even if you look at what happened in 2016, if you talk to any of the alphabet soup of agencies, they will tell you that there was no evidence that any votes or any voter registrations were changed. So part of what we're doing beyond trying to make sure it's even harder for someone to try to improperly get involved in our elections - again, beyond just kind of checking the doorknobs and checking the windows to make sure they're locked - of our security systems - we're also trying to make sure people understand that fact because...

KING: Well, you've said...

ASHCROFT: Go ahead.

KING: You've said that Missouri's voter systems weren't compromised in the 2016 election. However, Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri recently confirmed that her computer was targeted by Russia last year. Do you think you should be worried about this, regardless of what happened in 2016?

ASHCROFT: We are always concerned and not just focused on making sure that we are prepared to fight the last battle, if you will, but that we're prepared for what might come in the future. You know, if I may take a second, though, to talk about what seemingly happened with Senator McCaskill - that was a spear-phishing - a targeted phishing email attack on her email address. We have that happen every day multiple times a day here. I'm not saying it's appropriate. I'm not saying it's right. And foreign powers for an individual should not be trying to involve themselves in our election. But that's something that we deal with. I mean, that's almost normal for us to knock those attempts away from our systems. But - we're not going to take it lightly, but that's a normal occurrence for us to deal with. That - we probably have maybe 100,000 scans a day on our networks. For us...

KING: That is a lot.

ASHCROFT: ...That's just commonplace.

KING: One hundred thousand attempts at interference - is that what you're saying?

ASHCROFT: Well, we have, I think, roughly 100,000 times people kind of look at our systems. We don't know whether those...

KING: OK.

ASHCROFT: ...Are attacks or not. But we treat them as if they are because we don't want to let a single one of those through. And that's our job and our duty, and we will continue to do that so people can have faith and confidence that, if they're registered in Missouri, they can vote, and their vote will count.

KING: Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft. Thanks for joining us, sir.

ASHCROFT: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.