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Hired ‘hackers’ fail to disrupt Brazil voting system

Analysts test the electronic voting system at the headquarters of the Supreme Electoral Court Friday in Brasilia, Brazil. (AP/Eraldo Peres)

BRASILIA, Brazil -- More than 20 would-be hackers gathered in the Brazilian electoral authority's headquarters in the capital last week. Their mission: infiltrate the nation's voting system ahead of a race in October.

Their three-day battery of attempted assaults ended Friday and was part of planned testing that happens every election year, usually proceeding without incident or drawing any attention. But with President Jair Bolsonaro continuously sowing doubt about the system's reliability, the test took on an outsized significance as the electoral authority, known as the TSE, seeks to shore up confidence in the upcoming general elections.

Analysts and members of the TSE said the test's results were more encouraging than ever. All the experts attempting to disrupt the system -- among them federal police agents and university professors in engineering, information technology, data security and computer science -- had failed.

"No attack managed to alter the destination of a vote in the electronic ballot," Julio Valente da Costa, the TSE's secretary of information technology, told reporters in an interview afterward.

"The importance of this test is for us to rest assured, at least about all the technology and computing components for the elections."

When Bolsonaro won the presidential race four years ago, he claimed he had actually secured victory in the first round, not the runoff weeks later.

The former army captain has repeatedly made accusations the voting system used for three decades is vulnerable, and at times said he possesses proof fraud occurred, but has never presented any evidence.

Last year, Bolsonaro suggested the election could be canceled unless a voting reform was passed in Congress, but the proposed constitutional change did not garner enough votes.

Analysts and politicians have expressed worry that far-right Bolsonaro, who is trailing leftist former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in all early polls, is laying the groundwork to follow the lead of his ally, former U.S. President Donald Trump, and reject election results.

The TSE has gone to great lengths to bring more openness to the electoral process, even inviting the armed forces to sit on its transparency commission, though the military's role in elections is traditionally limited to carrying ballots to isolated communities and increasing security in violent regions.

Some political and military analysts have argued the TSE's olive branch proved to be a mistake as tensions have since escalated.

An army general who is part of a commission submitted dozens of questions to the TSE earlier this year.

"(The armed forces) are being guided to attack the process and try to discredit it," Supreme Court Justice Luis Roberto Barroso, who presided over the TSE until February, said during a conference with a German university on March 24. His comments drew backlash from Bolsonaro's Defense Ministry, which issued a statement saying the accusation was "a serious insult."

Barroso's successor at the TSE, Supreme Court Justice Luiz Edson Fachin, said Thursday the elections will be taken care of by "unarmed forces," adding that the TSE's declaration of voting results will be final.

Still, some analysts remain concerned.

"The armed forces today are part of Bolsonaro's government, from a political standpoint, and they are helping the president's efforts to corrode the institutions from the inside," Joao Martins Filho, a military expert who used to lead the Brazilian Association of Defense Studies, said. "That's no small thing. It's very dangerous."

More tests will follow in August, when the TSE conducts something of an election day simulation. That's when Brazil's presidential campaign will be officially getting underway, although Bolsonaro and da Silva are already holding rallies and events.

The TSE will continue conducting security tests until 15 days before the election.

Information for this article was contributed by Mauricio Savarese of The Associated Press.

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