Federal officials are in "a heightened posture" looking to thwart any hackers who may be targeting today's hotly contested Senate race in Alabama, where allegations of sexual misconduct against the Republican nominee, Roy Moore, have upended a once-presumed Republican victory, according to a top Homeland Security official.
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This morning, officials from the Department of Homeland Security held a "coordination call" with state and local counterparts in Alabama, and similar conference calls are expected throughout the day, said Chris Krebs, who is acting as the under secretary for DHS' National Protection and Programs Directorate.
Hoping to become the next U.S. senator from Alabama, Moore, a former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice, is facing off against Democrat Doug Jones, a former U.S. attorney.
During the presidential campaign last year, cyberthieves successfully stole voter-related information from the Illinois election system, and more than 20 other states had their systems scanned by hackers.
"We learned our lessons last year," Krebs told reporters today, warning that the hackers "will be back."
That's why authorities have made cybersecurity for states "a priority going forward" and are taking steps today to help state and local election officials in Alabama, according to Krebs.
"They know we’re here to assist," Krebs said. "We've been working with them kind of 'Game Day' planning for quite some time now."
He noted that a "protective security adviser" and a "cybersecurity adviser" from DHS are in Montgomery, Alabama, sitting "side by side" with state officials. DHS took similar steps last month, helping state officials in Virginia and New Jersey keep tabs on the cybersecurity of special elections for governor in their states.
Krebs emphasized that DHS is only there to offer "services and support."
"States manage their elections; that is a constitutional truism," he said. "We’re not getting in the way of that."
Instead, DHS offers states "a range of services," including "cyber hygiene scans" that regularly check state or local government systems for issues or vulnerabilities, he said. "For me it's a no-brainer. ... It doesn't cost anything to the states. It's free, and [it's] just a good insurance policy."
Krebs said he is "not aware" of any cyberactivity targeting today's election in Alabama.
"What I’m worried about is undermining the broader confidence in the vote," he said. "My [ideal] outcome is ensuring the American people have confidence that their vote matters when they show up to vote -- whether it's at a state, a mayor, county commissioner or for president."
As for DHS boots on the ground in Alabama, Krebs said: "We're not necessarily looking for anything. What we are doing is providing them technical support in the event that over the course of the day they see something. ... If there is something to detect, how do we respond? How do we ensure the integrity of the vote from a security perspective? How do we communicate with the people of Alabama?"
He said that if cyber-related issues arise, it's important to make sure Alabamans hear from a "trusted voice" and have confidence that their vote counts.
Speaking with reporters today, Krebs also said he was "really excited" that last night the House passed its version of the "Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Act," which he said clarifies certain questions surrounding federal efforts on cybersecurity.
In particular, Krebs praised the legislation for proposing a change to his department's name.
"'National Protection Programs Directorate,' or 'NPPD,' doesn’t really tell you much of what we do," he noted. "'The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency' does. The sign on the tent tells what we do."
He's now working with the Senate to make it into law, and he hopes that will happen "sooner rather than later," he said.