The US intelligence community thus far has not seen the concentrated, focused effort of election interference that haunted the 2016 presidential election, but that of course doesn't mean the coast is clear, according to Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency (CISA) director Christopher Krebs.
Krebs, who spoke at Black Hat USA yesterday about securing the 2020 election amid the COVID-19 pandemic, said the intel community is monitoring Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea for signs of targeting US infrastructure. "We see activity on a daily basis, but we can't attribute it to a specific state actor," he said. "But there's a whole lot of scanning going on."
He said he worries about ransomware threats to the election system, especially given the wave of ransomware attacks that have hit state and local government and hospitals. Krebs pointed to CISA's initiative to encourage strong security for voter registration databases, including multifactor authentication and other best practices to thwart such threats.
Visibility into the widely distributed and decentralized election infrastructure has come a long way since 2016. "We have better visibility" into the election infrastructure than in any other critical infrastructure sectors, Krebs said, mainly due to jurisdictions' wider adoption of the US Department of Homeland Security's Albert intrusion detection system monitors, which are now installed in all 50 states. In some states such as Florida, all counties have an Albert IDS, he said.
"But there's more to do. We have to continue preparing for a capable, disruptive actor," he said.
Krebs said the recent statement by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence warning about election interference efforts against the US by China, Iran, and Russia, was just "the beginning of a conversation with the American people about these threats and risks" and that more details are still to come.
Meanwhile, the US State Department this week announced it will offer a reward of up to $10 million for information that leads them to a person who engages in online election interference on behalf of a nation-state. "Persons engaged in certain malicious cyber operations targeting election or campaign infrastructure may be subject to prosecution under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1030, which criminalizes unauthorized computer intrusions and other forms of fraud related to computers. Among other offenses, the statute prohibits unauthorized accessing of computers to obtain information and transmit it to unauthorized recipients," State's media alert said.
Paper to the Rescue?
Another big piece of the 2020 election landscape: paper, as in paper backup and paper ballots.
"One of the best risk mitigation techniques right now is paper," CISA's Krebs said. "We need analog backup at all levels."
Paper ballot backups will be more widely deployed this year than in the 2016 election, thanks to a major effort over the past few years to update voting systems to record backup paper ballots, such as optical scanning systems.
"In 2016, 80% of votes cast had a paper record associated with it. In 2020, we're on track for 92%, and we might even do a little bit better" than that, he noted.
COVID-19 has added a new dimension to election security, with a greater demand for paper ballots as some states look to make absentee voting more available so voters have the option of mailing in their vote rather than risking exposure to the virus at public polling sites.
"There's reasons to be optimistic and pessimistic" about the security of the 2020 election, Matt Blaze, McDevitt chair in computer science and law at Georgetown University, said in his keynote address at Black Hat.
The nation has less than 100 days to prepare for a possible major uptick in mail-in voting, he said. "We need to prepare for a wide range of scenarios... print lots of ballots that we may not use and provide a lot of in-person voting under pandemic conditions," he said, which some underfunded jurisdictions won't be able to pull off in such short order.
It's unclear how paper voting could be scaled in the pandemic. Blaze points to the multi-layered process that goes into absentee/mail-in vote-counting. "This is a pretty labor-intensive process, sending the ballots out and processing the marked ballots ... with checks by multiple people," he says. And if the signature on the envelope doesn't match the registered voter's signature on record, election officials have to contact the voter to further verify the ballot.
Kiersten Todt, managing director of the Cyber Readiness Institute, said localities should be testing their election processes now to be prepared for any adversarial activity, whether it's cyberattacks or misinformation/disinformation campaigns. "Even with mail-in ballots, how is this going to be managed? We've got to be testing what it's going to look like on election day."
The recent Twitter hack should serve as a wakeup call for the major role the social media platform and others plays in the nation's economy and security, according to Todt. "They should be treated as critical infrastructure and they need to be working more collaboratively with government, and government [needs] to be doing a better job with industry."
Georgetown's Blaze said the cybersecurity community can play a key role in solving some of the election security challenges. "On an optimistic note, we can do this. We need to engage now," he said.
"This is a call to arms: this community is the one whose help among others is going to be needed ... by local election officials," he said. Look for how to help, as a poll worker or an IT expert, for example. "We have to all take responsibility for this."