All 50 states’ election systems were targeted by Russia in 2016, according to a July report from the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Minnesota is among the states that are taking steps to get ahead of cybersecurity threats for the 2020 election, and it is looking to the Minnesota National Guard for help.
Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon said last month that he wants to formalize a long-term agreement to work with a new “cyber protection team” developed by the Minnesota National Guard, according to the Star Tribune. The state is girding not just for attacks on its election infrastructure and the networks behind it but also for online disinformation campaigns.
“This is a security issue,” Simon said, according to the Star Tribune. “It isn't just about bullets or boots on the ground, it's about this cyber realm and the fact that adversaries try to expose or exploit weaknesses in the cyber world just as they would in other areas as well.”
According to Public News Service, Simon said the state will use some of the $380 million provided by Congress to bolster election infrastructure ahead of the state’s March primary. Minnesota has a four-year plan to modernize its voter registration system.
On Oct. 1, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz said, before sitting in on a homeland security threat briefing, that he thinks “this is one of those areas where it’s better to err on the side of caution of protecting the system than to pretend that it didn’t happen, even though the experts are unanimous in that it did and that it’s a real threat,” Walz told reporters, according to the Star Tribune.
Minnesota Looks to National Guard for Election Security Help
The Minnesota National Guard’s 177th Cyber Protection Team is at the forefront of the state’s cybersecurity efforts and is just one of four Army National Guard states with fully staffed cyber protection teams.
In 2018, it worked with Minnesota IT Services to look for vulnerabilities in the state’s infrastructure. The state’s partnership with the National Guard could involve “tabletop” exercises to plan for the election next year, including training for county and local election administrators.
Lt. Col. Daniel Cunningham, head of the Cyber Protection Team, told the Star Tribune that the 2016 attack pushed his unit to work with Minnesota IT Services and Simon’s office to examine the state’s networks and election infrastructure.
Now, the unit is exploring the use of penetration testing and threat hunting to find potential sources of misinformation and other cyberthreats. If the unit did find anything, it would alert Simon’s office or political caucuses so that they could inform the public, according to the Star Tribune.
“Nobody has gotten worse at this activity than they were four years ago — everybody's gotten better,” Cunningham said of foreign and nonstate actors’ meddling potential.