Investigation: How safe is your vote from hackers?

The state and county feel your vote is safe, and so far, they've only been proven correct. But across the country, the possibility of hacking is real. (Photo credit: WLOS staff)

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — In this election year, more than ever, there's been a growing concern about cyber security and for good reason.

Check out these headlines: "Seven most shocking revelations in hacked DNC emails released by WikiLeaks;" "Who hacked the NSA;" "How Russia pulled off the biggest election hack in US history" and "FBI suspects Russia in hack of John Podesta emails."

With all this hacking, how safe could our voting machines really be? Asheville's News 13 went to the man at the top to find out.

"We have many mechanisms in place to ensure that counties know that whenever we upload results to our website, that those, in fact, reflect the results that they see on the ground in the county," General Counsel for the North Carolina State Board of Elections Joshua Lawson said.

Lawson said don't worry about this cyber security thing. He says the voters' ballots, the machines and the digital media used for counties with touchscreen machines are all secure.

But outside the government, there is a different opinion.

"I actually do cyber defense and cyber offense. So, I not only try to protect computer systems, but I also try to break into computer systems," John Bumgarner said. He's a professional cyber security expert whose biography reads like a spy novel.

The Asheville resident is a former marine and special ops cyber intelligence expert. He's worked for the government and numerous large corporations protecting against hackers.

"No system is 100 percent secure and definitely not the voting systems spread across the states in America are secure," Bumgarner said. "If someone wanted to manipulate the vote with a malware or deleting voter records, it's highly possible. They could do that today."

John showed us how easy it would be to get into the state's voter registration database. He said manipulating that database would be a hacker's first choice to interfere with the election.

"Because if you can go across America and remove a couple hundred thousand voters from the databases, you could actually cause a lot of havoc on Election Day if a voter shows up at the poll and they can't prove that they're registered to vote," Bumgarner said.

He added that attempts to hack the voter registration database have already happened.

According to an FBI National Bulletin dated August 2016, it identified an "attempted intrusion" into two state election systems in Arizona and Illinois. The FBI said hackers were using specific software tools to scan voter registration data bases.

The FBI's Director James Comey confirmed the hack for members of Congress saying, "We are urging the state just to make sure that their deadbolts are thrown, and their locks are on and to get the best information they can from [the Department of Homeland Security] just to make sure their systems are secure."

Since that alert in August, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been flooded by states turning to them for help to protect against hackers, including North Carolina.

"We did partner with DHS, the Department of Homeland Security, to ensure that we have the best minds second guessing us," Lawson told News 13. "It's our job to sweat this stuff. The more folks that we can get sweating it with us, the better."

State elections folks may be sweating this cyber hacking stuff, but not our local election officials.

"So, if election systems were hacked in another state, that's the registration, that's yours and mine individual information," Buncombe County Elections Director Trena Parker said. "The tally system is completely separate. It is never accessible to the internet, WiFi or anything." She's saying your actual vote is never at risk.

To prove it, Buncombe County elections staff showed News 13 just how secure their voting machines are. All one hundred machines are locked up at the county jail. The only people who get close to them are election workers who are responsible for testing each and every one.

As a second layer of security, News 13 tagged along as the state did its own audit, testing an additional 10 percent. The only way to gain access to this area is with a fingerprint scan.

The machines are not hooked up to the internet, so Parker said there's no way these machines could ever be hacked. But our cyber security expert says voting machines can still be hacked even without hooking them up to the internet.

In fact, Bumgarner says North Carolina election officials make it easier for a hacker by putting the names and types of voting systems used in every county right on their website.

"If you're a hacker and you see this information, it allows you then to go out and do research on these systems and figure out how you can manipulate these systems," Bumgarner said.

So we asked the state Board of Elections Joshua Lawson why in the world would they share the type of voting machines with the public and potentially a hacker?

In an email, he wrote, "We don't have to make that information public, but we do because we think it's good information for voters to know."

But Bumgarner said the more information you give a hacker, the easier it is for them to gain access.

Now in all fairness, this would take someone doing the research, developing the malware and then somehow gaining access to the machines, which here in Buncombe County seems very unlikely. So, we come back to the question, how safe is your vote?

The state and county feel your vote is safe, and so far, they've only been proven correct. But across the country, the possibility of hacking is real.

Our security expert is convinced it can happen and says the best hackers are never caught. And as we saw with the DNC hacks, the Clinton email hack, and many others, we may not know until it's too late.

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