Vulnerabilities / Threats

1/10/2019
02:30 PM
Connect Directly
Twitter
LinkedIn
RSS
E-Mail vvv
50%
50%

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
Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Comments
Oldest First  |  Newest First  |  Threaded View
REISEN1955
50%
50%
REISEN1955,
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.)
Crowdsourced vs. Traditional Pen Testing
Alex Haynes, Chief Information Security Officer, CDL,  3/19/2019
BEC Scammer Pleads Guilty
Dark Reading Staff 3/20/2019
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Video
Cartoon Contest
Write a Caption, Win a Starbucks Card! Click Here
Latest Comment: This comment is waiting for review by our moderators.
Current Issue
5 Emerging Cyber Threats to Watch for in 2019
Online attackers are constantly developing new, innovative ways to break into the enterprise. This Dark Reading Tech Digest gives an in-depth look at five emerging attack trends and exploits your security team should look out for, along with helpful recommendations on how you can prevent your organization from falling victim.
Flash Poll
The State of Cyber Security Incident Response
The State of Cyber Security Incident Response
Organizations are responding to new threats with new processes for detecting and mitigating them. Here's a look at how the discipline of incident response is evolving.
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
CVE-2019-10014
PUBLISHED: 2019-03-24
In DedeCMS 5.7SP2, member/resetpassword.php allows remote authenticated users to reset the passwords of arbitrary users via a modified id parameter, because the key parameter is not properly validated.
CVE-2019-10015
PUBLISHED: 2019-03-24
baigoStudio baigoSSO v3.0.1 allows remote attackers to execute arbitrary PHP code via the first form field of a configuration screen, because this code is written to the BG_SITE_NAME field in the opt_base.inc.php file.
CVE-2019-10017
PUBLISHED: 2019-03-24
CMS Made Simple 2.2.10 has XSS via the advanced_search.php Name field, which is reachable via an "Add a new Profile" action to the File Picker.
CVE-2019-10010
PUBLISHED: 2019-03-24
Cross-site scripting (XSS) vulnerability in the PHP League CommonMark library before 0.18.3 allows remote attackers to insert unsafe links into HTML by using double-encoded HTML entities that are not properly escaped during rendering, a different vulnerability than CVE-2018-20583.
CVE-2019-9978
PUBLISHED: 2019-03-24
The social-warfare plugin before 3.5.3 for WordPress has stored XSS via the wp-admin/admin-post.php?swp_debug=load_options swp_url parameter, as exploited in the wild in March 2019. This affects Social Warfare and Social Warfare Pro.