This Tool Was Supposed To Detect Election Hacking. Now It's A Misinformation Target : Consider This from NPR 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. It's designed to warn of hacking attempts.

But in Washington State, this cybersecurity tool has become the subject of suspicion on the political right. It's part of a trend that one voting expert described as "using the language of election integrity to dismantle the infrastructure of election integrity."

The Northwest News Network's Austin Jenkins and NPR's Miles Parks explain what's happening.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment to help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.

This Tool Was Supposed To Detect Election Hacking. Now It's A Misinformation Target

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JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

If you're a hacker who wants to sow chaos in the U.S. - maybe because you work for a hostile government, like Russia's - well, state and local elections offices would be a pretty juicy target. And in 2016, they were targeted.

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WOLF BLITZER: We're learning that hackers have breached databases for election systems in Illinois and Arizona.

SUMMERS: A lot of them.

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JUDY WOODRUFF: The governor of Florida says that Russian hackers broke into voter databases.

SUMMERS: Like, a lot of them.

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BRET BAIER: The Department of Homeland Security has notified 21 states that hackers targeted their systems last year.

SUMMERS: Now, to be clear, almost none of these hacking attempts resulted in actual breaches, and the ones that have been publicly reported targeted systems like voter registration databases that have nothing to do with election results. A Senate intel committee report found no evidence that hackers changed any vote tallies in 2016. But it's unsettling, right?

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DAVID STAFFORD: It's all hands on deck.

SUMMERS: That's David Stafford, who's supervisor of elections in Escambia County, Fla. He talked to NPR in 2019, when the hacking in his state was revealed. There's no reporting to suggest Escambia County was affected, but still...

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STAFFORD: I don't think anybody is resting on their laurels and thinking that, OK, we've licked this.

SUMMERS: After 2016, the federal government put hundreds of millions of dollars toward helping state and local governments take measures to secure their election systems against this type of threat. One of those measures was a device called an Albert sensor - named after Albert Einstein, in case you're wondering. And it's designed to constantly monitor for signs of hacking attempts. Ohio's Republican secretary of state, Frank LaRose, testified about their importance before Congress this summer.

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FRANK LAROSE: If something goes wrong on a Saturday morning or a Friday night - in the middle of the weekend - you can know about it before everybody comes back to work on Monday, and you can mitigate the problem right then and there.

SUMMERS: But after the 2020 election, when then-President Trump pushed a steady stream of lies in his attempt to overturn President Biden's victory, polls show that confidence in elections is way down among Republicans. And now, in Washington state, one conservative county has become suspicious of Albert sensors, too.

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

SUMMERS: CONSIDER THIS - misinformation about elections is driving changes that will make it harder to run elections - not just in Washington state, but around the country.

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SUMMERS: From NPR, I'm Juana Summers. It's Friday, September 2.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. Albert sensors didn't used to be controversial. Democrats and Republicans considered them a valuable tool for securing elections. So how did they end up in the crosshairs in Washington state? Austin Jenkins of the Northwest News Network explains.

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 #1: All right. Well, we'll 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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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 #2: 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: 'Cause 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 cyberthreats. 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 if any one bit of it matches, and it says, yes, this is malicious, it's going to grab that out of the 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 cyberthreats 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 are 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.

DAVIS: Why the hard push? You know, they're - 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 cyberthreats.

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.

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SUMMERS: Austin Jenkins of the Northwest News Network. He co-reported that story with NPR's Miles Parks, who covers voting and election security. Miles talked to my colleague, Mary Louise Kelly, about how this development in Washington state tracks with a general increase in election denial in this country.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: 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?

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: 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.

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SUMMERS: NPR's Miles Parks talking with our colleague, Mary Louise Kelly.

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SUMMERS: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Juana Summers.

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