election security


State-industry cooperation is key to protecting democracy

The 2020 election cycle is now officially underway as each state prepares for its upcoming primary election and the general election in November. However, as a nation we are not fully prepared to deal with the possibility of malicious activity targeting our voting system and compromising the sanctity of our elections -- something that deeply concerns many and jeopardizes faith in our democracy.

As the former director of cyber operations and chief information security officer (CISO)  for the U.S. Air Force, my views around election security stem from fighting nation-states on the front lines in the U.S. military and later combatting cybercrime in the commercial sector. From where I sit, a big reason for our cybersecurity-unpreparedness is that we are not looking at the electronic-voting infrastructure and potential vulnerabilities holistically, nor are we taking into account the complexities involved. Solutions being considered address certain parts of the problem but not the entire chain of actions, thus putting the legitimacy of our elections at serious risk.

The variety and sources of cyberattacks are diverse and can occur at virtually any point in time and anywhere in the system -- before, at and after the ballot box. Here are three examples of the types of attacks state governments and security vendors should be working together to address:

  • Attacks on the vendor’s voting system software. This method focuses on penetrating the networks of the private companies that develop elements of election technology in order to compromise election software before it is even sold to a state and deployed. 
  • Direct and lateral attacks on voter registration databases. Most voter databases were written more than 10 years ago and are vulnerable to being hacked. Attackers can use malware to compromise a state’s voting records – by way of the Department of Motor Vehicles or otherwise – or they can delete or corrupt voter registration for a portion of the population. 
  • Direct attacks on vote casting, counting and auditing. Some states use email and fax for casting early votes, both of which can be highly insecure. Votes could be intercepted, or the election system could be injected with fraudulent votes cast by fake identities created by breaching voter databases or DMV records. A distributed denial-of-service attack could also target voter registration systems and disrupt the voting verification process.

The way forward for state governments and cybersecurity vendors

Although states are ultimately responsible for election systems and their security, providers of security software and hardware can and should also play a key role. Below are four steps that state governments, in partnership with the technology community, should take to effectively address vulnerabilities in the voting system and better protect our democratic process.

1. Mandate transparency from e-voting hardware and software providers about security of their software, and require them to identify security vulnerabilities. What I’m talking about is mandating cybersecurity hygiene, much in the same way that companies require cybersecurity hygiene of the organizations with which they do business or form partnerships. There is a broad range of commercial providers of election system technology, each playing a different role in the overall e-voting system ecosystem -- some of which have begun offering free, open-source versions of their software to governments -- making it critical for providers to be transparent about potential vulnerabilities in their systems. Just as Microsoft releases patches when new threats are discovered, this upgrade process must happen in our election system as well.

2. Conduct continuous, automated measurement and monitoring of the effectiveness of security controls. In other words, states must understand how systems are protecting against new and existing vulnerabilities, and this monitoring process must be automated and run continuously with cooperation from each software provider. Too often, assumptions are made that security technology and protocols are working as they’re supposed to. Given the complexity of IT environments, the number of software elements that work together and the volume of network and access changes made every day, misconfigurations that compromise performance are common. Optimal performance of the overall security environment requires quantifiable measurement and evidence that controls are working as expected.

3. Limit access for government employees to certain portions of the election system based on role and need. In the business world, insider threats pose greater security risks than external forces, and the same can be true for governments. This is not to say that external threats aren’t an issue; they absolutely are. However, it’s also important to take a cautious approach to the type of access government employees have to different systems. We ‘layered defense’ approach, puts measures in place to prevent the likelihood of a lateral attack on one or more aspects of the voting system -- including the voter registration database, which is linked to the DMV network. By limiting access to each system based on an individual’s role and need, cyberattacks on related systems are less likely. 

4. Create more alignment between state CIOs, CISOs and secretaries of state, and allow more oversight into security protocols, systems and technology being used. Across many states, the secretary of state oversees the election process, which includes testing and certifying the systems and technology used for voting.  States also have a CIO and a CISO, who typically don’t have a direct relationship with the secretary of state. I see this as an obvious area for change. At the very least, state CIOs and CISOs should be more involved in addressing election security, working alongside the secretary of state and election commissions as they strive to better understand the evolving cyber threat landscape and put the right solutions in place to address potential threats. But a more closely aligned relationship among the stakeholders when taking the first three steps outlined above will also drive more efficiencies, more consistency and a more uniform approach to election security.

Faith in our democracy is firmly grounded in trust in our electoral system. The challenges with protecting and securing our voting infrastructure are many, but they are not insurmountable. With states and vendors partnering to developing and adhering to the strictest security protocols and treating each component in the e-voting system holistically, we can assure the voting population of a fair and legitimate election outcome and maintain trust in American democracy.

About the Author

Earl Matthews is chief strategy officer at Verodin.


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