FILE - Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee

Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee

State and local officials have little choice but to assume the Russians are coming before the 2020 elections to probe and “phish” as they did in 2016, when according to federal officials they gained still-undefined access to two Florida counties’ elections systems.

And with at least three Florida cities’ computer systems targeted in recent “ransomware” attacks, forcing two to pay a combined $1.1 million in Bitcoin blackmail to retrieve encrypted data, cyber-security is a foremost concern.

As Joseph Heller writes in "Catch-22," “Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you.”

To that end, Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee announced Monday that 55 of the state’s 67 counties will receive another round of grants to improve elections and voter database security.

The $2.3 million in “unexpended funds” from Fiscal Year 2019 will be “redistributed” during FY 2020, which began July 1. Lawmakers had already earmarked $2.8 million in FY20’s $90.98 billion budget to upgrade elections security systems.

The $5.1 million in new state allocations will augment the $14.5 million Florida received in 2018 in a U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) grant to enhance elections security.

The grants announced Monday were issued to counties that had applied for additional funding if any came available.

The largest went to Orange County, $524,838; Volusia County, $317,211; Miami-Dade, $210,977; Manatee, $138,324; and Brevard, $87,957. At least six counties received less than $1,000, including $229 to Hendry County.

“I want to thank Gov. Ron DeSantis for supporting the redistribution of the $2.3 million in funds to supervisors of elections for election security,” Lee said in a statement. “I commend supervisors of elections for working quickly to submit grant applications so the department could approve the funding in a very short time frame.”

“Florida’s supervisors of elections are extremely thankful to have the $2.3 million in funding made available again thanks to the support of Gov. DeSantis,” Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections President Tammy Jones added. “We share the Governor’s and Secretary Lee’s commitment to election security and we will continue to do all that we can to protect our elections from cyber threats.”

Among safeguards recently installed is the $1.9 million purchase of the “ALBERT network,” which includes sensors to monitor and detect cyber threats.

According to the Center for Internet Security (CIS), “ALBERT is a cost-effective Intrusion Detection System which uses open-source software combined with the expertise of the CIS 24 x 7 Security Operations Center to provide enhanced monitoring capabilities and notifications of malicious activity.”

The service, offered through CIS, is only available to U.S. state, local, tribal and territorial governments.

At least 40 states have installed the network, although Lee said Monday that “Florida is the first and only state in the country to have all counties using the ALBERT sensor.”

Monday’s awards and the earlier state and federal appropriations follow revelations by the FBI that Russian hackers infiltrated two Florida counties’ elections systems before the 2016 election.

The claim first surfaced last year and was disputed by state and local elections officials, who said the agency has not presented evidence to support the allegation and has stonewalled requests for elaboration.

The assertion re-emerged in April when the 448-page Mueller investigation report stated on pages 50-51 that “at least one Florida county government” was comprised prior to the 2016 presidential election.

According to the Mueller report, Russian GRU military intelligence agents in November 2016 sent phishing emails with corrupted files to 120 Florida election officials.

The email, disguised as a message from Florida-based VR Systems, an election equipment vendor, had a coded attachment that could give Russian agents access to election systems. The ruse worked in at least one county, the report said.

Shortly after the Mueller report became public, Florida’s State Department insisted it had no knowledge about a successful, county-level hacking attempt in 2016 and reiterated the FBI had not shared its findings about the hack, noting in a statement, “they declined to share this information with us.”

On May 10, DeSantis was briefed by the FBI and DHS. Four days later, he revealed the agency told him two, not one, counties had been breached by Russian hackers.

The Washington Post, citing two unnamed officials “with knowledge of the investigation,” on May 16 said Washington County was one of the two counties breached by the GRU.

Despite the vagaries, Lee’s release Monday said his department and county elections supervisors “continue to work closely with state and federal partners,” including the FBI, DHS, the CIS, the Multi-State Information Sharing & Analysis Center and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.