Hacks, alarm bells, and a secret plan: TIME goes inside the scramble to stop Russia’s election interference
It reads more like a spy thriller than hard journalism, but it’s hard and vital journalism with a twist of Jack Ryan:
Riverside County District Attorney Michael Hestrin was at his desk on June 7, 2016, when the calls started coming in. It was the day of the California presidential primary, and upset voters wanted the county’s top prosecutor to know that they had been prevented from casting their ballots. “There were people calling our office and filing complaints that they had tried to vote and that their registration had been changed unbeknownst to them,” says Hestrin. Soon there were more than 20 reports of trouble, and Hestrin, a 19-year veteran of the office and a graduate of Stanford Law School, dispatched investigators to county polling places to see what was going on.
At first what they found was reassuring. Everyone who had been blocked from voting had been offered a provisional ballot, and most had cast their votes that way. But as the investigators dug deeper, things looked less innocuous. In the days after the vote, more people started coming forward to say they’d also had problems with their voter registration on primary day. In at least half a dozen cases, Hestrin and his investigators concluded, the changes had been made by hackers who had used private information, like Social Security or driver’s-license numbers, to access the central voter-registration database for the entire state of California.
There the trail went cold. The California secretary of state’s office told Hestrin’s investigators that the state’s system hadn’t recorded the Internet addresses of the computers that had made the changes, so there was no way to learn the identity of the hackers. Hestrin could go no further, but that wasn’t the end of it. The lingering mystery of the voter-registration changes bred doubt among members of both parties. Local Republicans publicly alleged that Democrats were ignoring the issue and privately accused them of trying to suppress the GOP vote. Democrats thought Republicans were making up an excuse for their losses at the county polls. “That was a big concern,” says Hestrin, an elected Republican. “People should still have faith in our election systems.”
And so it begins.
TIME’s full report, “Inside the Secret Plan to Stop Vladimir Putin’s U.S. Election Plot”, drawsnot only on interviews with local and federal election officials and cybersecurity sleuths, but a previously undisclosed 15-page plan prepared by President Obama by his top cybersecurity advisors. You’ll want to read both.