FBI believes Russian election hackers breached Florida county government: Mueller report

April 19, 2019 GMT

The FBI believes that Russia’s military intelligence agency successfully hacked into “the network of at least one Florida county government,” special counsel Robert Mueller’s report revealed Thursday.

FBI officials assessed that Russia’s GRU infiltrated the unspecified Florida county as the result of broad campaign that targeted election-related entities in several states during the 2016 U.S. presidential race, according to the special counsel’s report.

Russian hackers compromised a company that sells voting equipment and then leveraged that access to mount a spear-phishing campaign in which booby-trapped emails were sent to Florida county officials involved in administering the 2016 election, Mr. Mueller wrote in the report.

“The spearphishing emails contained an attached Word document coded with malicious software (commonly referred to as a Trojan) that permitted the GRU to access the infected computer. The FBI was separately responsible for this investigation,” Mr. Mueller wrote.

“We understand the FBI believes that this operation enabled the GRU to gain access to the network of at least one Florida county government,” Mr. Mueller continued. “The Office did not independently verify that belief and, as explained above, did not undertake the investigative steps that would have been necessary to do so.”

Florida election officials challenges the FBI’s assessment and sought further details.

“The Florida Department of State has no knowledge or evidence of any successful hacking attempt at the county level during the 2016 elections,” the agency said in a statement. “Upon learning of the new information released in the Mueller report, the Department immediately reached out to the FBI to inquire which county may have been accessed, and they declined to share this information with us.

The FBI did not immediately return a request for comment.

Details about the GRU spear-phishing campaign first became public through leaked U.S. National Security Agency documents published online in June 2017, and the Department of Justice filed criminal hacking charges against a dozen Russians sought responsible in March 2018.

Previous reporting identified the hacked voting equipment vendor as VR Systems, a Florida-based company that makes products used by several counties within the state.

“Immediately after the spear phishing attempt, VR Systems implemented a comprehensive program to ensure integrity in elections,” said Ben Martin, the company’s chief operating officer. “While we are proud of these efforts, we know that no system is ever completely secure and we work tirelessly every day to protect our systems and our customers.”

Reality Winner, a former intelligence contractor, pleaded guilty to leaking the classified NSA document and was sentenced in 2018 to more than five years in federal prison.

Released nearly two years since his appointment as special counsel, Mr. Mueller’s report summarized the Justice Department’s investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 race and possible coordination between Moscow and President Trump’s campaign.

Mr. Mueller’s office previously alleged in court filings that the same Russian officers accused of breaching VR Systems successfully hacked into the website of an unspecified state board of elections and stole the personal information of roughly 500,000 voters, including names, addresses and driver’s license numbers. Earlier reporting has identified that state as Illinois, though federal officials have claimed that Russian hackers at least probed election systems in all 50 states.