The old curse, "May you live in interesting times," seems appropriate these days, as we look to navigate the challenges of securing the election systems in the US.
In December 2019, the federal government allocated $425 million for states to upgrade their election security. This is the second round of funding to protect voting systems; the first, in 2018, totaled $380 million. Roughly 90% of that money was allocated for new voting machines and other cybersecurity projects for the elections. However, many feel that both allocations are not enough to properly invest in election security, including hiring cybersecurity experts, conducting post-election audits, and upgrading registration databases and voting machines.
This is why we must focus on the most effective areas to allocate the recent funding to improve the security of our elections.
How do we start?
The US is known as a technologically advanced country, and there are many options to take on this journey. Yet, the reality is that many states and municipalities still rely on aging systems and infrastructure, which are often complex and decentralized. This fragmentation problem alone is enough to give us pause. Combine that with limited resources and a growing gap in cybersecurity talent, and we have the potential for a runaway train.
First and foremost, this problem needs to be looked at just as a typical organization would with a security budget. An effort of this magnitude needs impeccable planning and execution. Here are five tips to get that process started in the right way.
- Hire a CISO specifically for election security projects. Just like any other organization would hire a security executive to oversee security efforts, federal and state governments must do the same. While we have heads of security for states and sometimes for municipalities, there is so much decentralization, it’s difficult to get all security experts on the same page and agree to what is necessary. This also helps the common problem of lack of transparency between states and the federal government.
- Evaluate the current environment and build a custom election security model. Everything from the network and firewall level, down to the application and data layer need to be evaluated thoroughly and made sure they are fully deployed, operational, and effective. We can often learn from other organizations, from different industries, that have been successful in implementing a strong, transparent, and effective security model for their company. It would be helpful to seek the advice and council of those leaders who have attained that level, and who can also help you see any blind spots.
- Protect the applications in the actual voting systems. We are often quick to slap on perimeter security in hopes that these measures will take care of a majority of potential incidents. But this way of thinking is limited. If there is one thing that the past 15 years has taught us, is that the perimeter is breaking down, with many experts maintaining that it’s already effectively dissolved. This gave rise to frameworks such as zero-trust security, that given the use of cloud technologies and the collaboration economy, plainly states that all aspects of technology and security must defend itself.
We can't rely solely on firewall and network security anymore. We must protect the applications and the data itself. This includes implementing extensive application testing protocols — such as Static Application Security Testing (SAST), Dynamic Application Security Testing (DAST), and Software Composition Analysis (SCA) — throughout the software development lifecycle, to ensure that your software code isn’t exploited and used to bring down critical infrastructure and other election system technologies. Or worse yet, that your election software isn't hacked, and the actual votes and election results altered thereby hacking our democracy.
- Understand the risks of using third-party development and security companies.
Outsourcing development and security projects can introduce risks that any organization must consider before proceeding with this model. These potential hazards can negatively impact the business’s bottom line and bring critical projects to a grinding halt before they can even be launched. Do these third-party vendors deeply understand the problem and the business outcomes you need? It’s also important to know their due diligence and software quality practices when it comes to the development and security of the applications that power election systems.
- Tap threat research, SOCs, and incident response. It's well understood that you can't protect what you can't see. Make sure there is a solid operations center on this effort at all times, and that you're learning from the data streams it’s uncovering. This includes research about particular threats, that can feed into an overall incident response plan in the event that something happens. SIEMs and security management platforms can help in this effort.
The Bottom Line
This is not a short-term journey, and it’s certainly not an easy one, but it’s possible to get there if we do it right. It takes the involvement and collaboration between states, municipalities and the federal government, as well as security companies that can help provide guidance, and third parties that can help in development and implementation efforts. Let’s not waste any more time and money. Let’s work together and spend this latest allocation in the best and smartest ways possible. Let's work together to keep our democracy hack-proof.