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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

For the second year in a row, three Washington counties reportedly go against state election security suggestion

Secretary of State Steve Hobbs speaks during a debate with Julie Anderson at Gonzaga University is in this October 2022 photo.  (Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review)

A week before Election Day, state elections officials say they haven’t been able to persuade three Washington counties to install a security device that monitors county network traffic for threats.

Almost every county in the Evergreen State uses an internet security system called an Albert sensor, an artificially intelligent tool that monitors network traffic for suspicious activity. According to the Washington Office of the Secretary of State, 36 out of 39 counties had an operating Albert sensor installed as of Tuesday. Grant, Ferry and Lincoln counties do not, the agency reported.

Under state law, counties have legal authority to make decisions about their own internet security. That job most often falls into the hands of county commissioners. State Secretary Steve Hobbs has repeatedly expressed concern about the counties he says have ignored state and federal advice to install Albert sensors.

Hobbs told The Spokesman-Review in an interview that conspiracy theories and disinformation began to circulate around the state about the security devices in 2021. Albert sensors are the Homeland Security standard, the secretary added.

“Most states have Albert sensors,” Hobbs said. “The Secretary of State’s Office prefers the Albert sensor to alternate security.”

Earlier this year, the Washington Secretary of State announced it would continue a program created to incentivize counties to install Albert sensors. Until June of 2024, counties that install the security device may apply for an $80,000 grant to improve election security. The grant program – initially announced in November last year – has disbursed $1.57 million to counties across the state so far, according to a memo from the Secretary of State.

“It’s getting to the point now where I might have to introduce legislation for minimum standards of security,” Hobbs said. “… I know it’s political expediency on their part to be able to say, ‘We’ve got something, and it’s not the Albert sensor.’ Because right now misinformation is directed at the Albert sensor.”

Tabulation machines for elections are not directly connected to Albert sensors. But the sensors monitor IP addresses and county websites. When counties post their election results online, Hobbs said those results could hypothetically be altered by a hacker.

Albert sensors do not block potential network threats. They only send a warning alert to humans that suspicious activity is detected.

Albert sensors were created by the Center for Internet Security, a New York-based nonprofit focused on providing cybersecurity for the public sector.

These programs receive federal funding from the Cybersecurity Infrastructure Security Agency under the Department of Homeland Security, which allows local government organizations to participate at no cost.

A year ago, there were more than 900 Albert sensors in use by local governments around the country, a company spokesperson told The Spokesman-Review. In Washington state, that number last year was reportedly 50.

In 2020, Lincoln County was reportedly hacked with a ransomware attack that took months to resolve. The Albert sensor didn’t recognize the attack, county commissioner Rob Coffman previously told The Spokesman-Review, and it was caused by a known virus.

In an interview, Coffman, who represents district 3, declined to comment on whether Lincoln County uses an Albert sensor.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to talk about the security measures that we have in place in Lincoln County,” Coffman said.

Coffman said he has done a lot of research on Albert sensors, and there is a lot of information the public doesn’t know about them. He added he is not an information technology expert, and that IT workers hired by the county make cybersecurity suggestions to county commissioners. Coffman is unhappy with the Secretary of State’s “doxxing” of counties over their security, he said.

“Albert sensors are not mandated by anybody,” Coffman said. “… County officers have constitutional autonomy over their central services department.”

In Ferry County, commissioner Michael Heath said the county unhooked its Albert sensor because he believes the technology is a waste of taxpayer money.

“Several people really big into security and cybersecurity have said this is a federal contract that taxpayers are paying to a company in New York that takes this information and it does absolutely nothing,” Heath said. “They do not inform you of anything.”

Coffman, who represents County District 3, added he believes somebody is paying the New York nonprofit millions of dollars to collect information.

“Our belief is it doesn’t help security,” Coffman said. “It doesn’t hurt security.”

Grant County representatives could not immediately be reached for comment.