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Hacking U.S. Election Voting Systems: A Federal Crime?

House legislators have approved by unanimous vote the Defending the Integrity of Voting Systems Act, which will make hacking into voting systems a federal crime.

The Senate passed the legislation, which was sponsored by Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) last year. It now heads to President Trump’s desk for signature.

The bill’s intent is to make cyber break-ins on federal voting infrastructure a crime under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), whose origin dates to 1986 and is based on striking a balance between the federal government’s interest in computer crime and the interests and abilities of the states to prohibit and punish offenses of that nature. While the Justice Department often relies on the CFAA to indict hackers accused of cyber crimes, there’s also a hole in that law in that it only applies to internet-facing systems. Election equipment isn’t typically hooked up to the internet.

“Our adversaries have shown a willingness and capability to hack the infrastructure that powers our democracy, however, our laws and enforcement lag far behind this dire threat,” Blumenthal said. “This bill must now quickly become law so every vote counts.”

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) called the bill “an important legislative initiative” particularly with the general election a scant six weeks away. “All of us want a fair and just election system, voting is an essential part of our democracy, we must ensure that our citizens have confidence in our electoral systems,” Jackson Lee said.

U.S. national security officials, still reeling by the depth of Russian intervention in the 2016 presidential election and the subsequent, ongoing cyber intrusions by other foreign powers, have taken to repeatedly and publicly announcing their determination and to fight cyber terrorism in the 2020 elections. William Evanina, the director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, recently said that China, Iran and Russia are seeking to “sway U.S. voters’ preferences and perspectives, shift U.S. policies, increase discord in the United States, and undermine the American people’s confidence in our democratic process.”

And, White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien recently warned the three cyber adversaries that intervening in the upcoming U.S. elections will bring “severe consequences.” In an interview on the television show “Face the Nation,” O’Brien confirmed that those foreign nations are launching phishing and other cyber offenses targeting American election infrastructure. U.S. counter terrorism is working with states to hardened election and cyber infrastructure, he said.

The private sector is also heavily involved in protecting the sanctity of U.S. elections. Microsoft has outed three prolific hacking crews from China, Iran and Russia for allegedly executing hundreds of cyber assaults on organizations and staffers associated with the election campaigns of Trump and candidate Joe Biden. While Russia has been prominently identified as the guilty party in attempts to infiltrate U.S. elections, senior intelligence officials and security defenders have consistently warned that other countries are also meddling in the voting system.

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