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Attempted hack of military app investigated

CHARLESTON — Federal and state officials announced this week an FBI investigation into an attempted hack on the new app for overseas deployed military voters and their families and warned others not to make the attempt.

Mike Stuart, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia, and Secretary of State Mac Warner held a press conference at the Robert C. Byrd Courthouse in downtown Charleston.

According to Warner, there was an attempt to hack the Secure Military Voting Application during the 2018 elections. The mobile app allows deployed military and their families to download an app and vote for candidates after they apply to use the app and are approved.

“In last year’s election, we detected activity that may have been an attempt to penetrate West Virginia’s mobile voting process,” Warner said. “No penetration occurred and the security protocols to protect our election process worked as designed.”

During the mobile voting process, the virtual ballot is encrypted and secured utilizing blockchain technology, then sent to the voter’s county clerk in West Virginia where their ballot is printed and tabulated. West Virginia was the first state to use mobile voting, first in a pilot project during the 2018 primary election, then a full rollout for any county that wanted to participate in the 2018 general election.

Both Warner and Stuart confirmed that IP addresses for the suspected attempted hackers have been turned over to the FBI. Stuart wouldn’t characterize the investigation was criminal in nature, only that law enforcement officials were looking into violations of federal law.

“My office instituted an investigation to determine the facts and whether any federal laws were violated,” Stuart said. “The FBI has led that investigation. That investigation is currently ongoing and no legal conclusions whatsoever have been made regarding the conduct of the activity or whether any federal laws were violated.”

Since 2018, Denver, Colo., and Utah County have used blockchain technology and mobile apps to allow their residents to cast votes. In West Virginia, 31 counties used the mobile system in 2018, with 144 overseas residents casting ballots through the system.

According to a study by University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, despite the small number of participants, the use of the mobile app increased overseas voting participating from 3 percent to 5 percent. However, the report’s author — Anthony Fowler — warned that more study was needed.

“Mobile voting raises new security risks that should be closely considered before it is further adopted,” Fowler wrote. “More states and localities are likely to experiment with mobile voting in the near future, and researchers should pay close attention to both the promises and perils of mobile voting when they do.”

October is National Cybersecurity Awareness Month, and both Warner and Stuart had a message for any potential hackers and other bad actors.

“Let me be absolutely clear: if you are a party — any party — or an individual — any individual — that intentionally compromises or attempts to intentionally compromise our election systems, the security related to our election systems, or the legitimacy of the votes cast by citizens, my office will prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law,” Stuart said.

“This announcement today is to warn people that any attempt to hack an election will be fully investigated by the FBI and turned over to prosecutors when appropriate,” Warner said. “This announcement is made for its deterrent effect. This is to caution people to not even attempt to mess with an election.”

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