Election Security Isn't as Bad as People Think

Make no mistake, however: We'll always have to be on guard. And we can take some lessons from the world of industrial cybersecurity.

Suzanne Spaulding, Former DHS Under Secretary and Nozomi Networks Adviser

January 10, 2019

5 Min Read

When the 2018 midterm elections took place on November 6, the country held its collective breath waiting for news of a major election cyberattack. A few election-related hacking incidents occurred leading up to the midterms, including the recently revealed breach of the National Republican Congressional Committee, but things remained relatively quiet on Election Day.

Although Russia's information operations continued, we didn't see the kind of malicious cyber activity around voter registration databases or the hack-and-release of emails that occurred in 2016. Steps taken by election officials, political parties, and federal agencies are making it harder for adversaries to pull off those kinds of disruptions. But we should assume their tactics will change — and we must prepare for the next round. 

When it comes to election security, it's easy to play into the FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt). But for all the talk around election security, the problem isn't as bad as many people think — and it is getting better. One thing is for sure: We're in better shape today than we were two years ago.

Growing Awareness Has Led to Progress
Most security researchers focus on the security of voting machines, but so much more comes into play and must be protected, including voter registration databases, the process of preparing and loading ballots into the machines, vote tabulation, and getting results to secretaries of state and the news outlets. Election infrastructure is much more complicated than just voting machines, and since 2016 government officials on both federal and state levels have taken strides to ensure the resilience of our elections against cyber threats. Communication has greatly improved between federal and state officials, improvements have been made to voting infrastructure, and election officials have received extensive training.

As awareness has grown, progress has been made — but there's still more to be done. I was in charge of cyber and infrastructure security at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) when we officially designated election infrastructure as critical infrastructure. There are many parallels between election systems and other forms of critical infrastructure, such as industrial systems. Just like with operational technology (OT) networks, the move to digitization has resulted in gaps in cybersecurity that must be addressed. I believe election officials can learn a lot from the advances made by industrial cybersecurity professionals to close those gaps and resolve vulnerabilities. For example:

  • Improve communication between siloed groups. Information technology (IT) and OT groups within industrial organizations have historically operated in siloes; however, digitization has led to the convergence of IT and OT, which has created the need for close cooperation between previously siloed groups. The same is true for the groups involved in election security. Election officials can learn from industrial leaders by focusing on clarifying responsibilities, putting communication processes in place, and planning workshops to reconcile perspectives, resolve clashing cultural issues, and establish trust.

  • Provide education. Cybersecurity education should be provided to all individuals involved in the election process on a regular, ongoing basis. Industrial cybersecurity leaders understand that the entire organization needs continuous education and often turn to widely used reference documents available from public cybersecurity organizations. For election officials and political candidates, cybersecurity playbooks developed by the Defending Digital Democracy project at Harvard's Belfer Center, where I am on the advisory board, are great resources. In addition to furthering education, implementing and enforcing clear cybersecurity policies and procedures is vital.

  • Safely integrate new technology with legacy systems. In the rush to digitize, industrial organizations have been challenged to integrate new technology with legacy systems. Election officials are faced with the same challenge and often struggle with understanding how to close cybersecurity gaps. Because it's unrealistic to expect all legacy systems to be replaced, it will be important to implement cybersecurity technology that offers real-time monitoring, providing visibility into all systems across the environment.

  • Put a comprehensive incident response plan in place. Assuming an adversary may overcome your defenses and ensuring that you can mitigate the consequences of an attack is an essential element of building resilience. Industrial leaders understand the importance of a comprehensive incident response plan that goes beyond just the computer network problems and addresses the operational impact. Creating an incident response plan that will allow a quick and safe response to identified threats is a must-have for election officials. The plan should have concrete guidelines and should clearly map out each individual's role. As a group, election workers should do practice drills to ensure readiness should a significant cyberattack occur. And any plan must include public communication to shore up public confidence.

As a country, we learned a lot from the 2016 elections. Great effort has been put forth to ensure the integrity of our election systems, and as those efforts continue, election officials can learn a lot from other critical infrastructure organizations that have a head start in improving cybersecurity in the face of digitization. With heightened attention on this urgent need, I am optimistic that things will get better from here — in 2020, 2022, and into the future. Beyond election security, we must continue to improve critical infrastructure in all its forms — our way of life depends on it.  

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About the Author(s)

Suzanne Spaulding

Former DHS Under Secretary and Nozomi Networks Adviser

Currently an adviser for Nozomi Networks and former Under Secretary for the National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD) at the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Ms. Spaulding has been addressing national security issues for more than 25 years. At the DHS, she managed a $3 billion budget and a workforce of 18,000 charged with strengthening cybersecurity and protecting the nation's critical infrastructure. Ms. Spaulding is Senior Adviser for Homeland Security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies; a Commissioner on the Cyberspace Solarium; on the Advisory Board of Harvard University's Defending Digital Democracy project; a Member of the Aspen Institute's Homeland Security Group; former Chair of the American Bar Association's Standing Committee on Law and National Security; and founder of the Cybersecurity Legal Task Force. Throughout her career, she has advised CEOs, boards, and policymakers on complex security risks across all industry sectors.

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