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Louisiana National Guard called in to stop cyberattacks weeks before election day

The cyberattacks, first reported by Reuters, appear to have struck some northern parishes, but the extent of the attack was still unclear Friday.

NEW ORLEANS — The Louisiana National Guard was called in to stop a series of cyberattacks in some northern parishes just weeks before the Nov. 3 election and as record numbers of early ballots continue to come in from across the state, multiple agencies confirmed to WWL-TV. 

The cyberattacks, first reported by Reuters, appear to have struck some northern parishes, but the extent of the attack was still unclear Friday. 

It isn't clear what exactly the hackers were hoping to do. But the Louisiana Secretary of State's Office said Saturday that the state's election systems were all secure

"No effect on our local election partners or any impact on elections," said Tyler Brey, a spokesman for the department. 

Because the Secretary of State's computer systems are separate from local government computers, it's harder for outside sources to get into them, Brey said. 

There was no indication that the attacks were specifically targeted at election systems or machines, he added. 

The Louisiana National Guard declined to comment on the reported cyberattacks, instead pointing to their mandate from the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness to respond to cybersecurity threats to the state. 

A spokesman for the Louisiana State Police gave WWL-TV a statement confirming that the agency was investigating "suspected cyberattacks" but did not provide any additional information or answer specific questions about the incident. 

A spokesperson for the governor's office confirmed both agencies had experts who "worked with some local governments on a cyberattack this year," but said they couldn't give out details because the incident was still under investigation. 

According to Reuters, which attributed the information to anonymous sources close to the investigation, the hackers used a program known as a remote access trojan, or RAT, to infiltrate government computer networks. 

The RAT described to Reuters was reportedly modeled after a North Korean virus known as "KimJongRat," but the program's code has become public, meaning it is harder to tie it to any specific state or foreign actors. 

Reuters claimed that "staff at several government offices in northern Louisiana were successfully compromised as part of the campaign," but WWL-TV was unable to verify which offices or government agencies were attacked, despite specific inquiries to multiple responding agencies. 

The national outlet said the attacks were stopped early, before significant damage could be done. 

This is not the first time in recent history that Louisiana has been the target of cyberattacks. In 2019, a series of ransomware attacks crippled various government agencies in the state. 

Over that summer, Gov. John Bel Edwards issued a state of emergency after several school systems were compromised. 

In November, a ransomware attack crippled Office of Motor Vehicles systems statewide, and had smaller impacts across other state agencies. The state did not pay the ransom demanded by hackers to restore access to state systems, and was able to restore access to most data through recent digital backups. 

About a month after that attack, the city of New Orleans had its own cybersecurity breach, forcing the entire city government to shut down electronic systems until the virus was purged. That process took months. While city officials said the attack was similar to the one made against the state, no ransom demands were ever received. 

It's unclear if the new hacks were in search of a payday or some other goal. The FBI warned earlier in the week that foreign adversaries -- namely Russia and Iran -- had obtained some voter information and had ramped up attempts to infiltrate U.S. election infrastructure. 

According to federal officials, even if the state-sponsored hackers can't affect the actual election process or votes, any successful attacks could sow distrust in the results of the election and cause civil unrest. 

Ed. Note: This story has been updated with a response from the Louisiana Secretary of State's Office.

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