Could critical infrastructure designation make state election systems less safe?

Another state official tells Congress that direct DHS oversight could create new risks, "ultimately undermining the security of our elections."

Declaring election systems to be "critical infrastructure" could make them even more vulnerable to the cyberattacks such a designation seeks to prevent, a top state official told a House oversight panel.

Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp said on Sept. 28 that the critical infrastructure designation -- suggested by Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson in the wake of breaches of Arizona and Illinois systems -- could introduce new cyber weaknesses into the systems.

It might also introduce new federal security standards that could create legal liabilities for states, Kemp added during testimony before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's IT Subcommittee.

He said the designation could "open up state databases to the federal government, as well as create new avenues where previously protected documents and information may become accessible to the general public, ultimately undermining the security of our elections."

His concerns echoed earlier testimony by state election officials on Capitol Hill. Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler told a House panel on Sept. 9 that Johnson's critical infrastructure suggestion was an "overreach" by the federal government.

And when Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), the subcommittee's chairman, asked Kemp and the other witnesses if they were concerned that a cyberattack on voting systems could alter the results of the upcoming election, all of them said no. The group included experts from academia and the Department of Homeland Security.

They said the reasons for that confidence are numerous. Voting machines that are not connected to the internet, widely different systems from state to state and paper ballot backups are among the elements that make a large-scale hack of the national election difficult.

Additionally, state and federal officials said DHS already provides voluntary assistance to states on cybersecurity matters, including best practices guidance, cyber hygiene scans and incident response.

Individual pieces of the election system are vulnerable, but DHS officials overall have confidence in its security from cyberattacks, said Andy Ozment, assistant secretary for cybersecurity and communications at DHS.

He added that it is never good to let our guard down when it comes to cybersecurity, but the overlapping layers of systems, range of voting machines, and checks and balances in state management would make a comprehensive attack difficult to pull off.

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