Minnesota secretary of State Steve Simon received his federal security clearance last week, and is now able to receive reports of potential cyber threats to Minnesota's election system.
"Now I can get more information (from intelligence agencies)," he said in an interview in Detroit Lakes Tuesday. "I took what they told me very seriously-this isn't going away."
Minnesota was one of 21 states whose election systems were "targeted by agents acting on the behest of the Russian government" prior to the 2016 elections, Simon said, quoting from a public intelligence report.
"We (in Minnesota) weren't hacked, but there were people out there looking for a way in-like a car thief casing a site for a theft," he added. "Illinois and Arizona suffered a breach-that's like the car thief getting into the car."
That kind of attempted cyber intrusion should be a big wake up call to Americans, he said. "I like to sound the alarm on this without being alarmist, if that's possible," he said.
Compared to other states, Minnesota's election system is secure, thanks to its old-school paper ballot system; vote-counting machines that (by state law) cannot be connected to the Internet; encrypted communications between county auditor offices and Simon's office in St. Paul; and election-day registration as the final backup system.
Election systems in lots of other states are far more vulnerable. Perhaps a quarter of all states are using electronic voting machines that don't provide any sort of paper trail to back up the election results, he said.
Some of those states are taking steps to improve their election systems. "Virginia is ditching this system for paper ballots," Simon noted.
After a rocky start, the Department of Homeland Security has become a good partner with states, "especially on the nuts and bolts guidance" to help plug any security holes in their election systems, Simon said.
Whether it's the Russians, home-grown hackers or anyone else, "our department doesn't care who it is," Simon said. "If someone is trying to intrude, we need to be on guard for this-cybersecurity is an issue for everyone."
While most people associate the Minnesota Secretary of State's Office with election work, the business and commercial aspects of the department actually employ more of his staffers, he said.
For example, in 2016, Simon launched the Minnesota Business Snapshot, which provides the public - from consumers to small business owners to educational institutions - with critical data and information on the economic and demographic makeup of Minnesota's businesses.
The Minnesota Business Snapshot is a voluntary, five-question survey now being offered to nearly 550,000 businesses as they file an original filing and subsequent annual renewals. So far, more than 230,000 businesses have participated, a participation rate much higher than most surveys, Simon noted.
The survey was designed with the help of business owners, business organizations, non-profits, and researchers from across the state.
It asks Minnesota business owners a variety of questions, including how many full time employees they have; whether they self-identify as a member of a specific community, such as a veteran, woman, or community of color; the industry or field in which the business operates; whether it's a full-time or part-time endeavor; and gross revenues for the past year.
Simon said the tool can be used by business owners to identify potential partners, for consumers to target their spending, and for the public and educational institutions to better understand the economic and demographic makeup of Minnesota's business community.
There are two Minnesota Snapshot Data currently available to purchase:
-- Minnesota Business Snapshot Bulk Data can be purchased on either a one-time basis or as a recurring monthly order. The data includes specific responses from each business that has voluntarily responded to any of the five survey questions. A Minnesota Business Snapshot Bulk order request form and signed license agreement is required. Minnesotans can purchase Bulk Data for $100. The Legislature requires that a fee be charged for the information, Simon said.
-- Minnesota Business Snapshot Customized Data can be purchased on a one-time basis. You can customize your search criteria by selecting one of the five survey questions. You can also customize the survey data by requesting criteria either by specific zip code or city. A Minnesota Business Snapshot customized order request form and signed license agreement is required. Minnesotans can purchase customized data for $25.
As a service to the public, the Secretary of State's Office provides information collected from the Minnesota Business Snapshot to state, county, and municipal governments at no cost.
If you are interested in purchasing the Minnesota Business Snapshot Bulk Data, contact the Business Information Lines at (651) 296-2803 or 1-877-551-6767.
Simon was at the Detroit Lakes Regional Chamber of Commerce Tuesday to ask for business feedback on his Minnesota Business Snapshot program.