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Florida Governor Says Russia Hacked Into 2 Counties' Election Systems In 2016


We got some news today from Florida about what Russian intelligence agents did in the 2016 elections. Here's the governor, Ron DeSantis.


RON DESANTIS: Two Florida counties experienced intrusion into the supervisor of election networks. There was no manipulation or anything, but there was voter data that was able to be got. Now, that voter data I think was public anyways. Nevertheless, those were intrusions. It did not affect any voting or anything like that.

SHAPIRO: That is more than what was publicly known until now about Russian efforts to interfere in the last presidential election. NPR's Pam Fessler covers this issue and is here in the studio to talk about today's announcement. Hi, Pam.


SHAPIRO: What exactly is new about this statement today?

FESSLER: Well, we knew from the Mueller report which was released a few weeks ago that at least one unnamed Florida county had had its computer network broken into by Russian intelligence. And that was a surprise to Florida officials who'd been led to believe that no Florida election systems had been breached in 2016. So DeSantis asked for a meeting with the FBI to get more information.

Today he said he had that meeting with both the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, and they told him that two Florida counties had their election networks breached. DeSantis said he signed a nondisclosure agreements, so he can't reveal which two counties. But he said he was assured that no voter data had been changed.

SHAPIRO: You're referring to this as a breach. Do you know what kind of a breach this was?

FESSLER: Well, DeSantis says it looks like it involved a spear-phishing campaign which involved an election vendor. So apparently workers in those two counties opened up emails that they shouldn't have opened, which gave the hackers access to the local election networks. Most likely it was voter registration databases.

And we know from the Mueller report and previous reporting that I and others have done that a vendor that provides Florida counties with software to manage their voter registration databases called VR Systems was also targeted by the Russians who then used the company's logo to send emails to its customers, and it contained malicious software. And that's the email that apparently was opened. And we were assured by both the company and election officials that no one opened those emails, but clearly that was wrong.

SHAPIRO: Did this jeopardize the election in any way?

FESSLER: No. DeSantis said he was told that it did not affect any vote count, and federal officials have insisted that all along both here in Florida but also in Illinois, which also had its voter registration database hacked into. It doesn't appear that any voting machines were involved, and no voter information was changed.

But what we don't know is whether or not any malicious software was planted in these systems that remains undetected. And the big concern facing election officials now is that somehow Russia, China or some other bad actor's going to try and sow confusion in upcoming elections not by affecting votes so much but maybe election websites or voter registration databases.

SHAPIRO: So what are they going to do about this now that they know that it has happened?

FESSLER: Well, DeSantis says what he's trying to do is to figure out why state election officials weren't told about this information and how to make sure that that doesn't happen again. Actually, federal intelligence agencies, state and local election officials - they've actually - they've been working very closely together over the past couple years since 2016 sharing information, trying to secure election systems. But clearly they have a lot more work to do as far as information sharing. I think the real lesson from today is that we probably haven't heard the last of what happened in 2016. And this information just keeps dribbling out, and maybe we'll never learn everything that happened.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Pam Fessler, thanks a lot.

FESSLER: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.