Kennesaw State was warned its server may be vulnerable to data breach

Merle King, the executive director for the Center for Election Systems at Kennesaw State University, explains how a DRE, a touch screen machine voters use when casting their ballot, works. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL

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Merle King, the executive director for the Center for Election Systems at Kennesaw State University, explains how a DRE, a touch screen machine voters use when casting their ballot, works. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL

Kennesaw State University officials received a warning before the presidential election that a server system used by its election center may be vulnerable to a data breach.

But they only notified state officials that they could have a problem after a second contact from a potential hacker raised alarms about the security of millions of Georgia voter records, according to top state officials briefed on the issue but not authorized to speak on the record.

It is not clear whether the university acted to address the potential problem identified by the hacker last fall, those officials said. KSU hasn’t publicly discussed the alleged breach, citing an open investigation.

It is also not clear the hacker had any ill intent and ever actually accessed the records, which the university keeps on behalf of the state as part of its Center for Election Systems.

But those officials said the second contact about the apparent vulnerabilities appears to be from the same person, which is what led to a federal investigation now underway involving the center.

The university through a spokeswoman declined to comment Tuesday, saying officials did not want to do anything to impede the inquiry's progress.

A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office also declined to comment.

A spokeswoman for Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who is said to have been furious at university officials for not telling his office about the contacts before this month, said he has confidence in how the presidential election was run and that additional data checks by the office confirm the election’s results.

She referred additional questions to federal officials.

In fact, Georgia officials do not believe “core systems” at the center have been compromised, according to records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The finding comes from emails between state Election Board members and the Secretary of State’s Office as staff sought to answer questions about a potential “hack” of confidential data reported earlier this month by the AJC.

The alleged breach appeared to have been centered on a server at the university, according to the emails.

“KSU informed us that as soon as they were made aware of the potential hack, they took the server offline in order to get their hands around the extent of the situation,” Ryan Germany, the office’s general counsel, wrote in an email dated March 4.

In another email dated March 10, Germany told state Election Board member David Worley that the university had “determined that the core systems at the KSU Center for Elections have not been compromised or attacked.”

The center uses the systems, Germany explained, to build and duplicate the digital lists of eligible voters used by poll workers in each of the state’s 3,000 precincts to verify voters’ names, addresses and registration.

They are “air-gapped,” meaning they are not connected to the internet, Germany said, “and are not connected to KSU’s server that is under investigation.”

Germany said the office was working with the university to ensure its network was now secure and that the office would not share any data with it until it was confident that was the case.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation launched its investigation into the suspected cyberattack March 2 after university staff discovered there may have been a breach.

The center has since 2002 overseen the state’s election operations and voting machines.

It does that work through an agreement with the Secretary of State’s Office. It does not, however, maintain live databases or the state’s official voter registration database.

There is no evidence the registration database or the office’s separate server system have been hacked, Germany said, and the private company used by the office to protect those systems has been on “heightened alert” since the breach.

The office has also indicated that preparations are continuing as normal for a nationally watched special election April 18 to replace former U.S. Rep. Tom Price.

That includes an expectation that the state will be able to use its usual supply of poll books as well as “direct-recording electronic” voting machines, or DREs, known by voters for their touch screens.

The state committed to the machines in 2002 when it last overhauled its elections.

At the same time, it also eliminated a paper trail of recorded votes, something a group of computer scientists and security experts said last week that the state should reconsider in light of concerns over the hack.

The emails do not address key questions the investigation is believed to be exploring, including when exactly the hack occurred, how deeply it penetrated and what areas of the center were connected to the server that university officials believe may have been breached.

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