The Phoenix Flyer

ProPublica casts doubt on tale of “11-year-old hacker” taking down replica of Florida election site

By: - August 31, 2018 9:48 am

With concerns about Russian hacking in Florida at an all-time high, news organizations published numerous stories earlier this month about an 11-year-old allegedly breaking into a replica of Florida’s state election system and changing the results at a hacking conference in Las Vegas.

“11-year-old hacks replica of Florida state election website, changes election results,” read the headline in USA Today. Similar headlines ran on dozens and dozens of other website and newspapers around the world (including in the Phoenix).

But a ProPublica investigation published last week revealed that while news agencies reported that organizers at the hacking conference said that students would attempt to hack into exact duplicates of state election websites, in fact they were working with “look-alikes” created strictly for the event – sites that had vulnerabilities that they were “coached to find,” ProPublica reporter Lilia Chang writes.

“Organizers provided them with cheat sheets, and adults walked the students through the challenges they would encounter,” Chang recounts.

Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley tells the Phoenix that he isn’t surprised at all by this development, “but I am surprised to see it reported.”

“I see no modern voting systems being subjected to their hacks, and there were none of the normal security controls and protections surrounding these systems, including the public facing logins, that would normally be defeated to allow actual manipulations,” adds Earley.

The Florida Division of Elections immediately pushed back after the original story about the alleged hack went viral, with spokesperson Sarah Revell telling the Associated Press that “This was a mock site with likely very few, if any security measures in place.”

“It is not a real-life scenario and it offers a wholly inaccurate representation of the security of Florida’s elections websites, online databases and voting systems that does not take into account the state of the art-security measures the Florida Department of State has in place to prevent any possible hacking attempts from being successful,” Revell said.

Russian hackers did attempt to break into the Florida elections system prior to the 2016 election, Secretary of State Ken Detzner told a legislative committee in Tallahassee last month, but he said that it had no impact on the Florida Voter Registration system which contains the voting information for every registered voter in the state.

The issue resurfaced earlier this month when Florida U.S. Senator Bill Nelson said that the Russians had “penetrated” into Florida’s voter system this year, a remark which set off a controversy when no one else in Washington would either confirm or deny the validity of his claim.

Governor Rick Scott, Nelson’s Republican challenger for the Senate, suggested that Nelson had either made up the information or had revealed classified information to a reporter. Federal officials said last week that they had “not seen any new or ongoing
compromises of state or local election infrastructure in Florida.”

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Mitch Perry
Mitch Perry

Mitch Perry has covered politics and government in Florida for more than two decades. Most recently he is the former politics reporter for Bay News 9. He has also worked at Florida Politics, Creative Loafing and WMNF Radio in Tampa. He was also part of the original staff when the Florida Phoenix was created in 2018.