As foreign meddling mounts, DHS projects confidence in election system resilience

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After a flurry of announcements by some of the biggest tech and social media companies revealed ongoing cyber influence operations linked to Russia and Iran, Department of Homeland Security officials projected confidence in the collective measures taken to harden election system defenses since 2016.

At an Aug. 22 press conference, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen and Christopher Krebs, head of DHS' cyber wing, told reporters that increased partnerships between the federal government, state and local election officials and tech companies have yielded significant improvements in election security.

Nielsen said DHS now has working relationships with all 50 states and more than 1,000 localities to strengthen cyber defenses. She cited more aggressive efforts by companies like Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft to identify and neutralize coordinated and inauthentic behavior on their platforms as examples of improvement.

The Election Infrastructure Information Sharing and Analysis Center established in February now has over 1,000 members sharing data, and Nielsen said the department has made great strides installing detection sensors nationwide that can identify malicious or suspicious activity on election systems.

"In 2016 we had about less than a third of the country covered," said Nielsen. "By this year, by the time of the election, we'll have more than 90 percent of the nation's registered voters living in an area with these defenses deployed."

Both Nielsen and Krebs cautioned that more still needs to be done, and Nielsen issued a challenge to election administrators to create better audit trails for voting machines.

"Today I want to call on all state and local election officials to make certain that by the 2020 presidential election, every American votes on a verifiable and auditable ballot," she said.

The Senate is considering a number of legislative proposals with provisions designed to strengthen auditability. The Secure Elections Act was scheduled for a vote in the Rules Committee Aug. 22, but the hearing was postponed at the last minute as members grappled with complaints from state and local election administrators and voting machine manufacturers. One area of disagreement is whether such audits should be solely conducted by hand, as most experts recommend, or through a mixture of manual and digital means.

When asked for her position, Nielsen declined to endorse any one approach.

"I don't know that we're interested in mandating how [states audit]," she said. "I just want to make sure that each state can explain to their citizens what they have done to verify their vote count."

Even as officials have yet to determine whether they were targeting the mid-term elections, the influence operations exposed by Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft in recent weeks have spurred a renewed urgency to do more around election security.

While DHS officials believe they are better prepared to identify and mitigate such campaigns than they were two years ago, Bob Kolasky, the first director of the newly created National Risk Management Center, told lawmakers this week that "we have to be prepared for chaos" on election night.

Alex Stamos, former CIO for Facebook and Yahoo, sounded a different tune in an Aug. 22 piece for Lawfare. Stamos believes it is already too late to adequately protect the 2018 elections from foreign influence operations, saying it is "clear" that countries like Iran have adapted the same playbook as the Russians and that other countries like China and North Korea will quickly follow suit if they haven't already.

He also highlighted the lethargic responses from the White House and Congress in the wake of the 2016 election.

"Although by now Americans are likely inured to chronic gridlock in Congress, they should be alarmed and unmoored that their elected representatives have passed no legislation to address the fundamental issues exposed in 2016," Stamos wrote.

The Department of Justice and DHS recently stood up a task forces to combat foreign-backed disinformation campaigns in the future. However, Krebs and Nielsen indicated their task force, still largely in the information gathering and outreach phase, would have a limited impact during the 2018 elections in support of DOJ.

Krebs cited the "unique convening authority" of DHS to pull together different stakeholders in the election security arena as one example of where the department can contribute. As an example, he cited meetings brokered by DHS in recent weeks between social media companies and state and local election officials to gain better understanding of the influence operations discovered on their platforms.

"The FBI is absolutely out in front on this, particularly from a tactical perspective," said Krebs. "We're able to convene and pass information, whether it's from the interagency or from the private sector, but also we can sit back, look at broader trends, educate, and increase awareness of the broader threat."

About the Author

Derek B. Johnson is a former senior staff writer at FCW.


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