Election security device under suspicion by Washington GOP Albert sensors alert local governments to potential hacking attempts. But in Washington state, this cybersecurity tool has become the subject of suspicion by some on the political right.

Some Republicans in Washington state cast a wary eye on an election security device

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

After the 2016 election and Russian hacking attempts targeted at local election offices, hundreds of local governments across the country made changes; among them installing something called an Albert sensor, named after Albert Einstein. And they are designed to warn of hacking attempts. Now, though, in Washington state, this cybersecurity tool has become the subject of suspicion by some on the political right. Austin Jenkins of the Northwest News Network reports.

AUSTIN JENKINS, BYLINE: It was Valentine's Day this past February, and the Ferry County Commission in rural northeast Washington state was holding its weekly meeting.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: All right. I will call the afternoon meeting to order.

JENKINS: On the agenda that day was an update on the county fair and a discussion about a local water and sewer district. But something else happened that would send a ripple across the state. The three-member all-Republican commission took up a proposal to disconnect the county's Albert sensor, a recently installed device that could warn the county if it was being targeted by hackers.

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NATHAN DAVIS: I'll make a motion that we remove the Albert sensor or shut it down.

JENKINS: Commissioner Nathan Davis led the effort. The vote in favor was unanimous.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Bye-bye, Albert sensor.

JENKINS: In a discussion after the vote, Davis explained his reasoning for wanting the Albert sensor gone.

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DAVIS: Because it's supposed to help with elections, yet the elections aren't hooked up to our network.

JENKINS: That's true. Voting equipment is not connected to the internet. But hackers could still wreak havoc on an election by breaking into a county's network. They could freeze or alter websites or do other things to harm public confidence in elections. Even so, Commissioner Davis made it clear he was uncomfortable with the Albert sensor sitting on the countywide computer network.

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DAVIS: So it's scanning everything we do on our network, and it sends it to a third party.

JENKINS: That third party is the Center for Internet Security, or CIS. It's a nonprofit that gets funding from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to help protect state and local governments against cyber threats. One of the ways it does that is through the Albert sensor program. The sensors monitor computer networks for traffic from known malicious IP addresses. Brian Calkin is a senior technical adviser at CIS. He says Albert sensors passively monitor for potential trouble and do not have unfettered access to a client's data.

BRIAN CALKIN: All this data is flowing through, and it's all passing by the Albert sensor. And then if any one bit of it matches and says, yes, this is malicious, it's going to grab that added line and then capture that and send that piece off for analysis. Everything else just flows right on through.

JENKINS: To date, more than 900 Albert sensors have been deployed across the nation. They send alerts, and federal officials say they've been a key component to better understanding the cyber threats facing states and counties. But that's also raised some concerns about Big Brother watching local government. Here in Washington state, two counties have now removed their sensors, and a third declined to install one. At that Valentine's Day meeting in Ferry County, Commissioner Davis cast a wary eye on CIS.

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DAVIS: It's a community-driven nonprofit. I mean, really?

JENKINS: Davis appeared to be reading from a memo that had been circulating in Washington state Republican Party circles that month. That memo, authored by a local GOP chair, tried to link CIS to a network of left-leaning organizations. But until recently, Albert sensors haven't been partisan. And in fact, the program ramped up during the Trump administration. Word of Ferry County's decision to remove its Albert sensor soon reached Secretary of State Steve Hobbs, a Democrat.

STEVE HOBBS: And immediately, it occurred to me this was a start of perhaps a misinformation campaign directed at the Albert sensor, and I was quite concerned about it.

JENKINS: Hobbs' office quickly convened a virtual meeting about the Albert sensor program and invited county officials from across the state to attend. Former Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman, a Republican, was among the speakers last February. She now leads election security efforts for the Biden administration.

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KIM WYMAN: The Albert sensor program is really a way for us to have one more layer of security and information that we can use to combat people who would do our system harm.

JENKINS: The presentation ended with Hobbs making a direct appeal to skeptical county officials.

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HOBBS: I am pleading with you - is that if you do not have an Albert sensor, get the Albert sensor. If you have removed the Albert sensor or thinking about removing the Albert sensor, please reconsider.

JENKINS: That plea was not compelling to Ferry County Commissioner Nathan Davis, who has a background in IT and who says he still has questions about how Albert sensors work. In an interview, Davis also said he finds it odd that anyone cares whether his little county with barely more than 7,000 people has one or not.

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DAVIS: Why the hard push? You know, their - you know, what are their true motivations, you know, to push so hard on something that really doesn't do a lot?

JENKINS: Cybersecurity expert Matt Blaze of Georgetown University offers an answer. He says these days, even little counties face global cyber threats.

MATT BLAZE: And the analogy that I often use here is that we don't ask the county sheriff to be responsible for repelling military invasions, but that is really the equivalent of what they're up against on the internet.

JENKINS: Despite Ferry county's decision, the majority of Washington's 39 counties have Albert sensors. In the words of one county auditor, we're a happy customer.

For NPR News, I'm Austin Jenkins in Olympia, Wash.

KELLY: All right. Listening along to that story with us is NPR's Miles Parks. He's with me now. He covers voting, and he co-reported this story with Austin Jenkins. Hey, Miles.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Hi there.

KELLY: So you've been covering all this, been covering elections since these sensors were rolled out to local governments. How should we see this episode in the bigger context of trying to understand what's happening with misinformation and American elections?

PARKS: So election experts are definitely noticing a trend here. As one voting expert told me, election deniers are using the language of election integrity to dismantle the infrastructure of election integrity. Basically, people who are being informed by misinformation are using it to justify changes that will make U.S. elections run worse. We're seeing this in some counties where there are pushes to go back to hand-counting ballots as opposed to machine counts even though we know hand counts are more expensive, they take longer and, more importantly, they're less accurate. I also reported a story earlier this year on conspiracies targeting a voter registration tool that helps election officials keep their voter rolls up to date and prevent fraud.

KELLY: OK. And now this twist of - we're seeing that same movement turning its sights on cybersecurity.

PARKS: That's right. I talked about this with Matt Masterson, who oversaw election security efforts within DHS leading up to the 2020 election. He said this cybersecurity tool is not only important for protecting the individual counties, but it's the best tool that the federal government has to see the entire landscape of what's happening in cyberspace at these local election offices.

MATT MASTERSON: It's OK to ask legitimate questions about, what are the purpose of these devices? What do they do? I think that is natural. I think that's the right thing. What is not appropriate is to make up or invent or lie about what these devices do and therefore hurt the overall security of our elections in the United States. That is what's frustrating. None of this is based on fact.

PARKS: At this point, these are the only two counties that we know about that have disconnected from this program. But we're definitely going to be watching across the country to see if Republicans in other places start targeting this system, which, to be clear, up to this point has been a bipartisan success story.

KELLY: Going to be a busy fall. NPR's Miles Parks, thanks for your reporting.

PARKS: Thank you so much.

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