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Voting machine data breaches raise concerns for midterm elections

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Sensitive voting system passwords published online. Copies of the confidential voting software can be downloaded. Skinning machines inspected by people not supposed to have access to them.

The list of alleged security breaches at local election offices since the 2020 election continues to grow, with investigations underway in at least three states – Colorado, Georgia and Michigan.

The stakes seemed to rise this week with news of a federal investigation involving a prominent former President Trump loyalist who promoted conspiracy theories about voting machines across the country.

While much remains unknown about the investigations, one of the most pressing questions is what these breaches could mean for the security of voting machines in the midterm elections, less than two months away.

Election security experts say the breaches by themselves did not necessarily increase threats to the November vote. Election officials already assume that hostile foreign governments might hold the sensitive data, so they take precautions to protect their voting systems.

The most immediate concern is the possibility that rogue election workers, including those who sympathize with the lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Trump, could use their access to election materials and knowledge gained from the breaches. to launch attacks from within. Such attacks could be used to give an advantage to their candidates or their party, or to introduce systemic problems that would further sow distrust in the election results.

In some of the alleged security breaches, authorities are investigating whether local officials provided unauthorized access to people who copied software and hard drive data and, in several cases, shared it publicly.

After the Georgia breach, a group of election security experts said the unauthorized copying and sharing of rural Coffee County election data posed “serious threats” to the November election. They urged the state electoral board to replace touch screen devices used statewide and use only hand-marked paper ballots.

Harri Hursti, a leading expert on voting security, worries about another possibility: Access to voting equipment data or software could be used to develop a realistic video in which someone one falsely claims to have manipulated a voting system, he said.

Such a video posted online or on social media on or after Election Day could create chaos for election officials and cause voters to challenge the accuracy of the results.

“If you have these rogue images, now you can start fabricating compelling fake evidence — fake evidence of wrongdoing that never happened,” Hursti said. “You can start creating very compelling imaginary evidence.”

There is no evidence to date that voting machines were tampered with, either in the 2020 election or in this year’s primaries. But conspiracy theories widely promoted among some conservatives have raised concerns that the machines could be targeted by people working in election offices or polling stations, and led to calls for the machines to be replaced by ballots. marked and counted by hand.

The alleged offenses appear to have been orchestrated or encouraged by persons who falsely claiming that the 2020 election was stolen of Trump. In several cases, employees of local election offices or election committees gave access to voting systems to people who were not authorized to have it. The incidents became public after Mesa County, Colorado’s voting system passwords were posted online, sparking a local investigation and a successful effort to block the county clerk from overseeing the election.

MyPillow chief executive Mike Lindell, who has hosted or participated in forums around US conspiracy theories about voting machines, said this week he received a subpoena from a federal grand jury investigating the Colorado violation and that he had been ordered to hand over his cell phone. to the FBI agents who approached him at a fast food joint in Minnesota.

“And they told me not to tell anyone,” Lindell said in a video afterwards. “Okay, I won’t. But I am.”

Lindell and others have traveled the country over the past year, hosting events where attendees are told that voting machines have been tampered with, officials are being “selected” rather than elected, and widespread fraud. cost Trump the 2020 election.

In an interview with the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Lindell said FBI agents questioned him about the Colorado breach and Dominion Voting Systems. Dominion provides voting equipment used in about 30 states, and its machines have been targeted in breaches in Colorado, Georgia and Michigan.

Linden said that when officers asked him why he flew interstate, he replied, “I go to attorneys general and politicians, and I try to get them to get rid of these voting machines in our country. ”

The Justice Department did not respond when asked for details of its investigation.

Dominion sued Lindell and others, accusing them of defamation. In a statement this week, the company said it would not comment on ongoing investigations, but that its systems were secure. He noted that no credible evidence had been provided to show that his machines “did anything other than accurately and reliably count votes in every state.”

The scope of the federal grand jury’s investigation in Colorado is not known, but local authorities accused Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters in what they described as a “deceptive scheme designed to sway officials, violate security protocols, override authorized access to voting materials, and trigger potential distribution of confidential information to unauthorized individuals.”

Peters pleaded not guilty and said it was his job to investigate concerns that voting materials had been tampered with. She’s appeared at numerous events with Lindell over the past year, including her August 2021 “cybersymposium” where a digital copy of the Mesa County Election Management System was distributed.

David Becker, a former Justice Department attorney who now runs the nonprofit Center for Election Innovation & Research, notes the irony that those who raise the most alarms about voting materials have been implicated in alleged violations of the same systems.

“People who have attacked the integrity of elections are destroying the real integrity of elections,” he said.

Associated Press writer Michael Balsamo contributed to this report.