Russians accessed two Florida voter databases in 2016: DeSantis

Florida governor says Russian hackers gained access to voter databases in two counties ahead of 2016 elections.

    DeSantis said the hackers didn't manipulate any data and the election results weren't compromised. [File: Jim Young/Al Jazeera]
    DeSantis said the hackers didn't manipulate any data and the election results weren't compromised. [File: Jim Young/Al Jazeera]

    Russian hackers gained access to voter databases in two Florida counties before the 2016 presidential election, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis said at a news conference on Tuesday.

    DeSantis said the hackers did not manipulate any data and the election results were not compromised. He and officials from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement were briefed by the FBI and Department of Homeland Security on Friday.

    The governor said he signed an agreement with the FBI not to disclose the names of the counties, but elections officials in those counties are aware of the intrusions.

    One person who was not aware was DeSantis's predecessor, now-Republican US Senator Rick Scott, DeSantis said.

    "We're trying to figure out what the state knew at the time," DeSantis said. "Obviously, the previous administration and the head of FDLE did not have that information."

    He said the hackers gained access through a spearfishing email after a worker clicked a link.

    Scott criticised his opponent in last year's election, then-Democratic US Senator Bill Nelson, for saying Russians had hacked elections systems. Scott called the allegations sensational. 

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    Scott will receive a briefing from the FBI on Wednesday, said spokesman Chris Hartline. Hartline confirmed that Scott was not aware of the hacking while he was serving as governor.

    "It's pretty clear during our back and forth in the campaign, there was no information provided to the state," Hartline said. "There will be a lot of questions ... We'll know more tomorrow."

    Special counsel Robert Mueller's report on Russian interference in the 2016 election also said hackers gained access to the network of at least one Florida county. Republican US Senator Marco Rubio has previously said at least one Florida county had an intrusion.

    DeSantis said he was frustrated when he saw the vague reference to hacking in Mueller's report.

    "Hey, this shows up in the Mueller report, no one ever said anything to me," DeSantis said. "Granted, I took office in 2019 and this happened in 2016, so I get why the FBI wouldn't have rushed to tell me about something several years ago." 

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    He did say the FBI and Homeland Security officials said Florida is ahead of the curve in elections cybersecurity in advance of the 2020 election - though he warned that attacks change constantly.

    "Threats evolve, so I don't ever want to say, 'Hey, there's no more threats.' It's just something you've always got to be vigilant about."

    'Interference unacceptable'

    Meanwhile on Tuesday, Pompeo warned Russia not to interfere in next year's US elections. 

    Pompeo was visiting the Black Sea resort of Sochi where he met Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. 

    Pompeo renewed US concerns that Moscow meddled in the 2016 election to try to tip the vote to Donald Trump.

    "Interference in American elections is unacceptable. If Russia engaged in that in 2020, it would put our relationship in an even worse place than it has been," Pompeo said.

    "I conveyed that there are things that Russia can do to demonstrate that these kinds of activities are a thing of the past. I hope that Russia takes advantage of those opportunities," he added.

    Lavrov, however, rejected the accusations of Russian interference, which a redacted version of the Mueller report said included extensive, shadowy efforts on social media.

    "The facts show that those who are inflating this topic do not have any proof," Lavrov said.

    On "collusion" involving high-ranking officials, Lavrov said: "It's clear that such insinuations are absolute fiction."

    "We want and we are ready to deal with cybersecurity issues along with our American partners, without any politicisation," he said.

    Putin later reiterated that sentiment, telling Pompeo that Russia has never interfered in the US election. He also called the Mueller report "quite objective". 

    Despite the sharp disagreement on election meddling, Pompeo said that Trump had instructed him to build a better relationship with Russia.

    SOURCE: News agencies