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INDUSTRY INSIGHT

For state and local elections, secure apps are critical

In the lead up to the U.S. general election, state-level primaries have already exposed some troubling and critical weaknesses in technology applications, starting with the delay reporting the results of the Iowa caucuses. Slowly, it became clear that a glitch in the reporting function of the app -- which was meant to easily collate results from many different municipalities around Iowa -- was at fault. Precinct captains along with temporary and permanent caucus chairs tried to download the app on the night of the caucus rather than downloading and testing earlier. Trying to log in through multiple layers of security on-the-fly proved difficult. Later reports stated that the app itself had been cobbled together within just a few days by approximately 10 people.

Now with the COVID-19 pandemic, more state and local governments may consider using mobile and other technologies for elections, but they need help to do so safely and securely. Not only should security and privacy be prioritized, but so should the entire application and its code. Further, election volunteers and other users must also receive proper training for any apps or technology, to make sure it serves the intended purpose.

All of these considerations might lead one to question whether state and local governments are given enough guidance, respective to securing elections. More broadly, should they be held to the same regulations and strict standards that the federal government is held to?

One of the biggest obstacles in doing so is budgetary -- smaller municipalities are just as important to the wider democracy, but they may not have access to the robust IT and security resources to ensure protection of elections in their geographic area. Not to mention, differing voting systems across counties and small towns differ makes it extraordinarily difficult to secure these disparate systems.

Breaking this down further, in the current political climate, the resilience of domestic public-sector cybersecurity is under increased scrutiny. In targeting the election and voting process, for example, nation-state adversaries try to penetrate any attack surface or technology they can. This includes firewalls, endpoint security and network security solutions, as well as applications and websites -- and they are often successful. All areas are potentially vulnerable.

For trust to be widespread, security must start at the most basic levels, like within the code at the application layer, and reach all the way to the cloud, to mobile devices, to the Wi-Fi connection, and to each endpoint and everything in between, throughout the organization.

With applications becoming more critical to the function of government and more critical to carrying out local and possibly even federal elections, there are new challenges to overcome. As a society, we want to recognize and embrace technology for the power it provides in allowing us to accomplish business goals as much as allowing the country to elect new leaders. As an enabler, technology propels us toward the future. Respecting and protecting technology and innovation is a true American value. We want states and cities to use technology in efficient and meaningful ways, but we must also ensure that it is secure.

Recently, geopolitical tensions between the United States and Iran escalated. As a natural result, our government issued concerns for U.S. cyber assets. The upcoming presidential election is no less of a concern.

Public sector entities must be prepared to defend the nation against any sophisticated cyberattack. These threats can target both the perimeter security as well as the application layer of public-sector organizations. According to the Center for Strategic & International Studies, state-sponsored cyberattacks against applications and websites are of increasing concern, with recent examples including:

  • In August 2019, China used compromised websites to distribute malware to Uyghur populations via undisclosed exploits for Google, Apple and Windows phones.
  • In October 2019, a state-sponsored hacking campaign kicked more than 2,000 websites offline in Georgia, including government and court sites that housed case materials and personal data.
  • In December 2019, unknown digital adversaries stole login credentials from government agencies in 22 countries across Asia, Europe and North America.

To mitigate the risk of application security vulnerabilities resulting in a successful attack, state and local governments should consider using application security testing to accurately find vulnerabilities in websites and applications throughout the software development life cycle, including in production. They should also consider using an automated service that scans application source code, identifies vulnerabilities and provides detailed vulnerability descriptions and remediation advice. The discovered vulnerabilities can be prioritized according to severity so that teams know what should be remediated first.

In taking these steps, government entities of all sizes would demonstrate their commitment to defending America’s democracy and protecting our elections from cyber threats and state-sponsored attacks.

About the Author

Matthew Hutchinson is VP of marketing at WhiteHat Security.

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