Tap DHS for help protecting voting systems, officials urge

Tap DHS for help protecting voting systems, officials urge

Following reports of attacks on  voter registration systems in Illinois and Arizona and the theft of the Democratic National Committee emails, officials are urging state and local governments to increase vigilance to better secure election systems from cyberthreats.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) is advising states to take advantage of the federal resources, such as risk and vulnerability assessments and tools, offered by the Department of Homeland Security.

“While I remain confident in our election systems today and in the numerous security precautions already taken by the states, I respectfully ask that you continue to encourage the states to review the cybersecurity of their election systems, and to take advantage of the information and voluntary assistance provided by DHS and other federal agencies,” Carper wrote in a Sept. 14 letter to the chair and vice chair of the National Governors Association, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D-Va.) and Gov. Brian Sandoval (R-Nev.). 

In August, Carper wrote to DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson commending him for considering designating election systems as critical infrastructure. Under that arrangement, voting systems would get the same protections as the power grid and banking systems. 

However, at least one state official believes that would be unconstitutional and unnecessary.

"I don't think critical infrastructure protection is needed at all," Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler said at a Sept. 9 hearing of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.

"We can go to [DHS] now and get [cybersecurity] tests," he said. Furthermore, states can take advantage of cybersecurity best practices issued by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and "most states are cooperating with the FBI" on the issue.

Schedler said he understood the desire to protect election systems because they are a crucial element of U.S. democracy, but declaring the state-run systems to be federal critical infrastructure was an unconstitutional "overreach and unnecessary."

"I don't know of any secretary of state who has voiced an opinion they want to be part of that," he added.

Committee Chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) cited reports that the attempts to penetrate voter databases in Arizona and Illinois have been linked to Russia. "We have yet to take decisive steps to defend ourselves and deter attackers," he said.

At a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, National Security Agency Director Adm. Michael Rogers did not share his views regarding voting system hacks, citing an ongoing investigation led by the FBI. However, he did say that the diverse and highly distributed nature of U.S. voting systems gives it some built-in defense against adversaries.

"One advantage I do see from a defensive standpoint: The structure is so disparate, with some elements still being very manually focused [and] others being more electronic and interconnected," Rogers said. "Because it's not just one nationwide, single, integrated structure, I think that tends to help us defensively here."

At the House hearing, Dan Wallach, professor of computer science and Rice faculty scholar at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy, said states should have contingency plans similar to the ones that were developed when Hurricane Sandy threatened the Northeast on Election Day 2012.

Database backups and large orders of paper ballots could allow governors to declare a state of emergency and take appropriate action, up to and including rerunning the election on a different day, Wallach added.

A version of this article was first posted to FCW, a sister site to GCN.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, tele.com magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at mrockwell@fcw.com or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.

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