Should election systems be considered critical infrastructure?

Voting machines and the databases behind them don't clearly fall into any of DHS' categories of critical infrastructure, but some experts say that should change.

The specter of a foreign government hacking into U.S. election systems has been given new emphasis because of recent remarks by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. The issue has a long list of former federal officials and lawmakers concerned.

In late July after the Democratic National Committee's databases were hacked and DNC members' private email messages released by WikiLeaks, Trump said Russia should help find Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton's lost email messages from her time as secretary of State.

The DNC breach has been ascribed to hackers with ties to the Russian government, but U.S. federal law enforcement has made no official attribution yet. Some political operatives in the DNC have alleged the data dump was meant to embarrass Clinton and push voters toward Trump, who has expressed admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The imbroglio has raised concerns among many former DHS officials and lawmakers about foreign influence in the U.S. election process. In a July 28 statement, 32 members of the Aspen Institute Homeland Security Group said that if the DNC hack is found to have been backed by Russia, it constitutes an attack on "the integrity of American democracy."

The group's members include former DHS Assistant Secretary for Policy Stewart Baker; New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton; former DHS Inspector General Clark Ervin; former National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael Leiter; former National Security Agency Director Michael Hayden; and former Sen. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), who now serves as president, director and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

The group is urging the White House and Congress to get to the bottom of the DNC hack and identify who the attacker was.

Furthermore, election officials at the federal, state and local levels should regard the hack as evidence that "our electoral process could be a target for reckless foreign governments and terrorist groups," according to the organization's statement.

The group is also calling for voting processes and results to receive the same kind of security attention that is extended to the electrical grid, water systems and other critical infrastructure.

Political parties and the federal government "bear special responsibility for helping to prevent such intrusions in the future," the group said. "Just as the federal government offers, and candidates routinely accept, Secret Service protection for their candidates, so too should campaigns and candidates be offered and accept assistance in securing their communications."

Meanwhile, in a July 27 Washington Post column, security technologist Bruce Schneier stressed the need to provide federal cyber protection for voting systems. He argued that such systems, which are generally maintained by state and local governments, are part of the country's critical infrastructure.

However, Nathaniel Gleicher, former director for cybersecurity policy at the White House's National Security Council, told FCW that providing critical infrastructure protection to voting systems is not as straightforward as it seems, in part because each state takes its own approach.

When it comes to pursuing a hacker, "it might be possible to sanction someone for voting machines, but one would have to show that their activities met the standards set by" Executive Order 13694, said Gleicher, who joined Illumio in January as head of cybersecurity strategy.

The order, issued by President Barack Obama in 2015, gave certain federal leaders new authority to respond to threats by malicious cyber actors, the kind who present "serious economic and national security challenges" to the country's critical infrastructure, economic resources, trade secrets and personal data.

Gleicher said the standards in the order were intentionally set high, but a blatant attempt by a foreign government to influence the outcome of a presidential election could meet those standards. However, he added, applying the order to an attack on critical infrastructure would depend on the facts surrounding the attack.

For instance, Gleicher said anyone who perpetrates an attack on voting machines must be proven to be an integral part of the attack or to have provided assistance that materially contributed to a significant threat to U.S. national security, foreign policy, economic health or financial stability.

Hacking election machines to influence a major U.S. election could certainly clear the "significant threat" threshold, but pursuing an attacker based on critical infrastructure protections would be trickier.

"One would have to argue that entities that provide voting are in a critical infrastructure sector and that the service they provide was compromised by the hack," he said.

Voting systems are not explicitly named in DHS' 16 categories of critical infrastructure, however.

And Gleicher said attackers don't actually have to attack voting systems, and he offered this scenario: "What if someone were to announce, shortly after a very close election, that they had hacked enough voting machines in a swing state to change the result? Technical analysis of the systems in question provides some evidence that they may be telling the truth, but it's inconclusive. The winning candidate declares it's a desperate move by the loser to overturn the will of the people. The losing candidate calls for a revote. What do we do?"

In other words, a simple alternative to an actual cyberattack on election systems might simply be the claim of a cyberattack, he said.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.