Feb 11 2020

As Targets, States Need to Be Prepared for the 2020 Election

Ransomware attacks, continued disinformation campaigns and aggressive nation-state attacks threaten the November election.

With the first 2020 election primaries upon us, state government leaders are faced with the critical question of whether their election systems are prepared for looming cybersecurity threats. 

Foreign threat actors have shown again and again their interest in undermining one of the most sacred rights Americans hold: the vote. In Florida, it’s been reported, Russian interference in voter roll systems had the potential to alter results during the 2016 midterm elections. In Illinois, media reports show, there’s evidence that hackers working for Russian military intelligence installed malware on the network of a voter registration technology vendor. In fact, all 50 states’ election systems were targeted by Russia in 2016, according to a July 2019 report from the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. 

Cyber-enabled election threats did not end in 2016. In the 2018 midterm elections, FireEye identified multiple social media accounts impersonating congressional candidates and spreading pro-Iran messages. 

From the federal to the state level, government entities are looking into how these incidents happened and how to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Unfortunately, those who would do the nation harm are working day and night to find new ways to weaken our systems and, subsequently, voter confidence. 

Security experts have seen a number of potential threats to the 2020 elections, namely a significant increase in ransomware attacks, continued disinformation campaigns and more aggressive nation-state attacks within regions outside the U.S. 

Why States Need to Enhance Election Cybersecurity Now

A proactive approach will help states know their adversaries, put in place secure processes and technology, and deliver assurances to the voting public. So, how can they prepare for these potential threats? 

First, state agencies need to have a clear handle on the current status of their critical election infrastructure. As demonstrated in Georgia, election officials must ensure that a state’s voting machines are secure or face potential lawsuits by voter advocacy groups. 

Knowing the adversaries and understanding the ways attackers may breach systems will ultimately help states stop them. Election officials should also communicate the importance of identifying problems and prevention across state departments so that all vital agencies are engaged. 

Another way to ensure a state is prepared for potential problems is to test existing election security plans and build and maintain a culture of continuous vigilance. Relying on an assessment may give a good baseline, but continuous improvement, exercises and education helps put states in a stronger position to handle and respond to threats. 

State governments need to have a rapid response plan. Knowing how to react before an attack occurs can be the key to stopping an intruder and preventing a nightmare scenario for a state. This strategy will go a long way in pinpointing vulnerabilities in the system and will allow state election officials to guarantee protections are present before a problem occurs.

Modernizing election infrastructure is also crucial for states to gain the upper hand in the fight against threat actors. Collaborating with technology vendors and private sector peers can be the first step in the modernization process for states.

Finally, states shouldn’t assume their only resources for these vital protections are strained state budgets for election security upgrades and preparedness. 

There are many opportunities for state governments to obtain low- or no-cost support and resources through the federal government. The 2002 Help America Vote Act provides financial assistance to states to strengthen their election infrastructure against today’s threats. In addition, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency also provides no-cost services to states such as access to cybersecurity personnel, cybersecurity assessments and cyberthreat hunting.

MORE FROM STATETECH: Find out what states are doing to secure their election infrastructure.

States Get Boost in Election Cybersecurity Funding

To help relieve those strained state budgets, Congress recently approved $425 million in additional election security funding that will give states flexibility in how to use the money. This funding will allow states to further invest in election security protections, personnel and systems. The move, a continuation of HAVA, assesses critical election infrastructure, replaces aging voting equipment and conducts post-election audits. 

States can also use the latest allocation to upgrade voter registration systems and to hire and train additional IT staff. Taking advantage of these funds as they become available is essential for states to increase protections for voters in advance of the 2020 elections. 

As we look ahead to Nov. 3, 2020, we must remember one thing: The single most important factor to a peaceful transfer of power is confidence in the results of the election itself. 

Maintaining the integrity of our election process goes beyond technology itself. It is more akin to approaching the topic as an emergency management and response issue. The threat to our voting system is real, and states must act now to mitigate — and hopefully prevent — a threat to the nation on Election Day.

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