Ohio taps National Guard to defend election system from hackers

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Story highlights

  • The Guard's cyber unit's mission consists of specialized teams running tests on the state's computer networks
  • Hacking voting machines in the nation's 9,000 jurisdictions would be a tough task

(CNN)Ohio is calling upon the National Guard to help defend the state's election system from hackers.

"Lets face it: Cyberwarfare is a new front for the military, for business and now for elections," said Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted.
    To combat that threat, Husted has done something unprecedented in the state's history. He's called on the Ohio National Guard's elite cyberprotection unit to help secure the election.
    The National Guard takes orders from the state's governor. The Ohio National Guard cyber unit's election mission consists of specialized teams running penetration tests on the state's computer networks.
    That means the team is trying to hack the state's network to find vulnerabilities hackers might exploit. The team is also searching the state's election system for malicious activity, like a detective casing a scene to find evidence of a crime.
    So far, 46 states are now seeking protection from the Department of Homeland Security to fend off cyberattacks against their election systems.
    But what's happening in Ohio is taking it one step further, deploying a military unit confront the threat.
    "We want to be tested," Husted said.
    Hacking voting machines in the nation's 9,000 jurisdictions would be a tough task since they're not connected to each other or the Internet.
    There are also security measures in place. Voting machines are sealed with tamper-proof seals. If the seal is broken or replaced, election officials would immediately know. The serial number on the seal is recorded, and if the seal is broken, that would be visible.
    However, voter registration databases with names, numbers, emails and addresses are vulnerable. There were breaches in some states, including Arizona and Illinois. More than 20 states have experienced attempted hacks on election systems.
    Hackers could use voter contact info in those databases to send out erroneous voting locations.
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    They could also wipe the database clean, making names disappear from voter logs, sparking confusion and long lines.
    In Ohio, Husted said officials have a contingency plan "that includes additional paper ballots at the polls as well as a paper backup of the voter registration lists."
    The National Guard cyber team in Maryland is on standby to assist its state if the governor calls.
    Major Gen. Linda Singh runs the operation there. She said not many people realize the mission of National Guard Unit's in various states is expanding.
    "These are the people responding to the floods, the hurricanes, but they're not necessarily thinking that we are out fighting the technology war."
    Maryland's cyber unit is one of the first in the nation.
    For National Guard Units in both Ohio and Maryland, the goal is the same, identify and stop cyber intruders.
    These cyber protection units are not in every state yet. The National Guard Bureau tells CNN there are currently 23 units, and by 2019, the plan is to have cyberprotection teams in 34 states.
    With the election just days away, Husted said "voters should feel comfortable and confident with the system."
    'We have put safeguards in place," Husted added. "It doesn't mean a cyberattack couldn't occur, which would be an inconvenience, but it's not going to change any outcome of an election."