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States Seek To Prevent Election Hacking

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

America's intelligence agencies are urging officials, from Washington to state capitals, to get ready. They expect Russia to try to hack this year's midterms, just as it tried to infiltrate the 2016 elections. Here's the warning Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats gave Congress last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAN COATS: There should be no doubt that Russia perceived that its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 U.S. midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations.

SHAPIRO: Intelligence agencies over the weekend gave state elections officials a classified briefing on what to expect. Jim Condos was in that briefing. He's the secretary of state for Vermont, and he's president-elect of the National Association of Secretaries of State. Welcome.

JIM CONDOS: It's great to be here.

SHAPIRO: After this meeting, were you more or less concerned about attempts to hack the election than you were before the meeting?

CONDOS: I would say that we're just all being cautious at this point. The briefing that we had really just kind of laid it out so that we understood what they were looking at. But it was - a lot of the information that they shared with us frankly is already out there in the public.

SHAPIRO: So memes and bots and trolls and social media is one thing. But when it comes to actual attempts to hack into voting machines, tell me about the steps that Vermont is taking to prevent that from happening.

CONDOS: Well, first, I want to be very, very clear. A vast majority of the states use similar but different machines, and none of those machines are connected to the Internet whether it be by hardwire or Wi-Fi. So there's really - it's almost impossible to get in and actually hack - find the memory cards and make any kind of change to those. So first of all, it was clear to us - the intelligence community did tell us, to their knowledge, that there was - not one vote was changed. And we believe that as well. But I think what we're concerned about obviously are the rest of our systems - for instance, the voter registration databases. Those are the key ones that appeared to be what they were looking at towards the end of 2016.

SHAPIRO: Do you think the attempts to hack U.S. elections in 2016 changed the way state and federal election officials work together today?

CONDOS: Well, I think going back to - let's just say July of 2016 - many of us were not as concerned about cyberrisk assessments. And today, everyone of us is concerned about it. And I think a good analogy of what occurred in 2016 when you had the reported 21 states that were targeted. The best analogy I can come up with is it was like someone had approached the windows of your house and was looking in through the windows to see where there might be a vulnerability. That's exactly what was occurring. So in my state in Vermont, we actually had performed a cyberrisk assessment starting in 2013 of all of my agency's IT systems. And every time we add one, we go through a risk assessment and also penetration testing to prepare for anything that we need to know.

SHAPIRO: Hackers often try to hide their trail. If hackers are successful in 2018, are you confident that the U.S. will know it?

CONDOS: I believe we will. There's enough people that are looking at it now that we will know - Ari, I have to be honest with you. You know, if anybody says to you, we're 100 percent guaranteed that we're not going to get hacked, you know, I think that person is really misinformed. You know, the hackers yesterday had one way of trying to get in. Today, they're going to evolve to some other way. And tomorrow, they'll try a different way. Their job is to try to hack in. Our job is to try to fend them off. We're doing everything we can on our side to try to prevent it. And I believe strongly that all of my colleagues are focused on preventing any interference.

SHAPIRO: Jim Condos, secretary of state for Vermont, thank you for joining us.

CONDOS: You're quite welcome. I'm glad to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.