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Expert at USF cybersecurity conference rejects idea of hijacked Nov. 8 election

Despite a concerted effort by Russians to interfere with the Nov. 8 presidential election, and constant claims by Republican nominee Donald Trump that it is rigged, American voters should not fret, says a man who was once a top spook.

“The U.S. election system is the best in the world,” said Mike McConnell, a retired Navy vice admiral who in 2007 was named by then-President George W. Bush to be the nation’s second director of national intelligence, overseeing the efforts of 17 U.S. civilian and military spy agencies. He served two years under Bush and President Barack Obama.

McConnell made his comments to the Tampa Bay Times after a session Tuesday at the Florida Center for Cybersecurity’s third annual conference in downtown Tampa. The conference attracted about 800 security experts, owners of companies large and small, military personnel, technology workers and students. The center is based at the University of South Florida.

The chairman of the center’s board of advisers, McConnell said concerns that the election could be hijacked by hackers “are not valid” because the voting systems are “too local” with each state and county having its own system.

Fears of hacking have been raised before. In an essay this month in the conservative online publication Breitbart, John F. Banzhaf III, a professor of public interest law at George Washington University Law School, argued that there are reasons to worry.

“Just weeks after the release of a report showing how easy it would be for Russians or even high school nerds to hack a presidential election, two other professors have just proven it,” he wrote. “University of Michigan Professor Alex Halderman was able to infiltrate a voting system from 500 miles away, and, in another demonstration, manipulate voting results with only a screwdriver and some memory chips. Princeton professor Andrew Appel was able to hack an election machine in only 7 minutes.”

CNBC, a more mainstream news outlet, recently reported that while “experts say that the chances of hacking at the polls are remote, since they aren’t typically connected to the Internet … research shows the technology behind most of these machines is grossly outdated.”

The lack of advancement in U.S. election technology is actually a good thing, said McConnell, likening it to how Ukraine officials were able to restore power after last December’s Russian cyberattack on their grid because the system relied on older analog technology.

Scott Charney, corporate vice president for Microsoft’s Trustworthy Computing Group, agreed that it seems unlikely the election system could be hacked because “it is a massively decentralized system that is managed at the state and local level.”

The concern, however, makes him “wonder if the march that we are on” toward eventual electronic voting “needs to be tempered in some way.”

McConnell agrees with Obama’s statement that the Russians are behind the hacks of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair John Podesta. Calling it a Russian “information operation,” he said that the leaks achieved the desired effect of casting doubt on the U.S. election, a concept reinforced repeatedly by Trump in his statements that the election is “rigged.”

“It was the Russians casting doubt about the integrity of our election system,” said McConnell. “They have achieved that effect.”

McConnell said that if he were asked, he would advise the White House to respond not by a cyberattack on Russian systems, but by using various tools via the Internet to “embarrass” Russian President Vladimir Putin by “outing” the criminal activities and wealth of his closest allies.

“I wouldn’t advise a cyber attack that could escalate out of control,” he said. “We are the most vulnerable.”

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow@haltman

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