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:
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.
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, ... View Full Bio