Dark Reading is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them.Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Vulnerabilities / Threats

02:30 PM
Connect Directly
E-Mail vvv

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.

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.  

Related Content:


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

Recommended Reading:

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
User Rank: Apprentice
5/26/2019 | 5:33:44 PM
Security of Voting Machines
It'd be interesting to know what hardware-level security, if any, is embedded in voting devices to safeguard them from "rogue software" being loaded onto them - via Internet or locally. 
User Rank: Ninja
1/11/2019 | 7:53:29 AM
In Georgia
The IT staffers have indicated that direct voting machines (computer and card chip) have zero connection to the internet.  This is a good first step at that connection point.  I have heard zilch about data transmission to appropriate entity in Atlanta and/or how the data is stored on what server and IF that server is well protected or not.  In ideal world, entire end-to-end procedure should be non-internet connected, which would be easy to do.  Car transport data to appropriate site and install to an isolated server for analysis.  Gee, I wonder if anybody has thought of that.  (Remember that Atlanta was wonderfully wrecked last year by ransomware and had ZERO backup and restore plan in place.)
COVID-19: Latest Security News & Commentary
Dark Reading Staff 7/6/2020
Ripple20 Threatens Increasingly Connected Medical Devices
Kelly Sheridan, Staff Editor, Dark Reading,  6/30/2020
DDoS Attacks Jump 542% from Q4 2019 to Q1 2020
Dark Reading Staff 6/30/2020
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Current Issue
How Cybersecurity Incident Response Programs Work (and Why Some Don't)
This Tech Digest takes a look at the vital role cybersecurity incident response (IR) plays in managing cyber-risk within organizations. Download the Tech Digest today to find out how well-planned IR programs can detect intrusions, contain breaches, and help an organization restore normal operations.
Flash Poll
The Threat from the Internetand What Your Organization Can Do About It
The Threat from the Internetand What Your Organization Can Do About It
This report describes some of the latest attacks and threats emanating from the Internet, as well as advice and tips on how your organization can mitigate those threats before they affect your business. Download it today!
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
PUBLISHED: 2020-07-07
An issue was discovered in Xen through 4.13.x, allowing Arm guest OS users to cause a hypervisor crash because of a missing alignment check in VCPUOP_register_vcpu_info. The hypercall VCPUOP_register_vcpu_info is used by a guest to register a shared region with the hypervisor. The region will be map...
PUBLISHED: 2020-07-07
An issue was discovered in Xen through 4.13.x, allowing x86 Intel HVM guest OS users to cause a host OS denial of service or possibly gain privileges because of insufficient cache write-back under VT-d. When page tables are shared between IOMMU and CPU, changes to them require flushing of both TLBs....
PUBLISHED: 2020-07-07
An issue was discovered in Xen through 4.13.x, allowing guest OS users to cause a host OS crash because of incorrect error handling in event-channel port allocation. The allocation of an event-channel port may fail for multiple reasons: (1) port is already in use, (2) the memory allocation failed, o...
PUBLISHED: 2020-07-07
An issue was discovered in Xen through 4.13.x, allowing Intel guest OS users to gain privileges or cause a denial of service because of non-atomic modification of a live EPT PTE. When mapping guest EPT (nested paging) tables, Xen would in some circumstances use a series of non-atomic bitfield writes...
PUBLISHED: 2020-07-07
An issue was discovered in Xen through 4.13.x, allowing x86 HVM guest OS users to cause a hypervisor crash. An inverted conditional in x86 HVM guests' dirty video RAM tracking code allows such guests to make Xen de-reference a pointer guaranteed to point at unmapped space. A malicious or buggy HVM g...