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After Russian Hack Of Illinois Voter Database In 2016, State Beefed Up Election Cybersecurity

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Russian election interference; those words pop up on our screens practically every day. The Morning Insiders want to know how Illinois is protecting voters ahead of the primary elections in March.

After all, our state's system was hacked only a few elections ago. Now, even the National Guard is on alert in case of another attack on the state's election system.

On June 23, 2016, Russians hacked the Illinois State Board of Elections website, gaining access to a database containing information on registered voters, and slowing down the board's entire system to a crawl.

"We quickly discerned that it was because an intruder had broken into our system, and was inundating it," said Board of Elections spokesman Matt Dietrich.

Officials quickly shut everything down to halt the attack.

"It really was a wakeup call," Dietrich said.

The hack of the Illinois voter registration database compromised sensitive details of 76,000 people.

It wasn't until later that the state learned the attack had come from Russia.

The feds launched an investigation, eventually indicting Anatoliy Kovalev and 11 other Russian operatives for hacking voter databases in Illinois and other states.

Three-and-a-half years after the breach, the fight against foreign influence on voters continues nationwide.

The Illinois State Board of Elections essentially shored up the data side, Dietrich said.

"When you're talking about cybersecurity, there's a playbook for that," he said.

However, misinformation on social media is still a big problem. There's fear votes will believe posts claiming polls have closed early in certain counties, among other falsehoods.

"Don't just take it at face value. Make sure it's coming from a reliable source," such as the Illinois State Board of Elections website, Dietrich said.

The board is producing ads informing voters to use their website to find where they can vote, among other information about the upcoming primaries. The ads will be hitting the airwaves and social media feeds soon.

Dietrich said if the state can make the website get stuck in people's heads, "that would be perfect."

"What I want is, if we can make into an irritating thing like that Kars4Kids song, that would be the greatest thing ever," he said.

Come election day, voters aren't likely to notice security changes. Behind the scenes, a $13.2 million federal grant has been fueling nine cybersecurity specialist.

"They do risk assessments on the office, they do training with employees, and they make recommendations to equipment that needs to be upgraded," Dietrich said.

The Illinois Cyber Navigator Program helped things run smoothly during the November 2018 midterm elections. The state is hoping for a repeat this year.

The state also is in talks with the National Guard to make sure their military cybersecurity experts can respond to polling places within an hour on election day, if needed. That partnership was in place for the 2018 midterms, but didn't need to be activated.

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