Senate Intelligence Committee Issues Election Security Guidelines

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The U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee is continuing its work on election security, and yesterday released a report that includes a list of guidelines for states and localities on measures they can take to harden their systems. Here’s the relevant section:

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has examined evidence of Russian attempts to target election infrastructure during the 2016 U.S. elections. The Committee has reviewed the steps state and local election officials have taken to ensure the integrity of our elections and agrees that U.S. election infrastructure is fundamentally resilient. The Department of Homeland Security, the Election Assistance Commission, state and local governments, and other groups have already taken beneficial steps toward addressing the vulnerabilities exposed during the 2016 election cycle, including some of the measures listed below, but more needs to be done. The Committee recommends the following steps to better defend against a hostile nation-state who may seek to undermine our democracy:

1. Reinforce States’ Primacy in Running Elections

  • States should remain firmly in the lead on running elections, and the Federal government should ensure they receive the necessary resources and information.

2. Build a Stronger Defense, Part I: Create Effective Deterrence

  • The U.S. Government should clearly communicate to adversaries that an attack on our election infrastructure is a hostile act, and we will respond accordingly.
  • The Federal government, in particular the State Department and Defense Department, should engage allies and partners to establish new international cyber norms.

3. Build a Stronger Defense, Part II: Improve Information Sharing on Threats

  • The Intelligence Community should put a high priority on attributing cyberattacks both quickly and accurately. Similarly, policymakers should make plans to operate prior to attribution.
  • DHS must create clear channels of communication between the Federal government and appropriate officials at the state and local levels. We recommend that state and local governments reciprocate that communication.
  • Election experts, security officials, cybersecurity experts, and the media should develop a common set of precise and well-defined election security terms to improve communication.
  • DHS should expedite security clearances for appropriate state and local officials.
  • The Intelligence Community should work to declassify information quickly, whenever possible, to provide warning to appropriate state and local officials.

4. Build a Stronger Defense, Part III: Secure Election-Related Systems

  • Cybersecurity should be a high priority for those managing election systems.
  • The Committee recommends State and Local officials prioritize the following:
    • Institute two-factor authentication for state databases.
    • Install monitoring sensors on state systems. One option is to further expand DHS’s ALBERT network.
    • Identify the weak points in the network, including any under-resourced localities, and prioritize assistance towards those entities.
    • Update software in voter registration systems. Create backups, including paper copies, of state voter registration databases. Include voter registration database recovery in state continuity of operations plans.
    • Consider a voter education program to ensure voters check registration well prior to an election.
    • Undertake intensive security audits of state and local voter registration systems, ideally utilizing an outside entity.
    • Perform risk assessments for any current or potential third-party vendors to ensure they are meeting the necessary cyber security standards in protecting
      their election systems.
  • The Committee recommends DHS take the following steps:
    • Working closely with election experts, develop a risk management framework that can be used in engagements with state and local election infrastructure owners to document and mitigate risks to all components of the electoral process.
    • Create voluntary guidelines on cybersecurity best practices and a public awareness campaign to promote election security awareness, working through the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC), the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS), and the National Association of State Election Directors (NASED).
    • Maintain and more aggressively promote the catalog of services DHS has available for states to help secure their systems, and update the catalog as DHS refines their understanding of what states need.
    • Expand capacity to reduce wait times for DHS cybersecurity services.
    • Work with GSA to establish a list of credible private sector vendors who can provide services similar to those provided by DHS.

5. Build a Stronger Defense, Part IV: Take Steps to Secure the Vote Itself

  • States should rapidly replace outdated and vulnerable voting systems. At a minimum, any machine purchased going forward should have a voter-verified paper trail and no WiFi capability. If use of paper ballots becomes more widespread, election officials should re-examine current practices for securing the chain of custody of all paper ballots and verify no opportunities exist for the introduction of fraudulent votes.
  • States should consider implementing more widespread, statistically sound audits of election results. Risk-limiting audits, in particular, can be a cost-effective way to ensure that votes cast are votes counted.
  • DHS should work with vendors to educate them about the potential vulnerabilities of both voting machines and the supply chains.

6. Assistance for the States

  • States should use federal grant funds to improve cybersecurity by hiring additional Information Technology staff, updating software, and contracting vendors to provide cybersecurity services, among other steps. Funds should also be available to defray the costs of instituting audits.

Kudos to the Committee, especially Chair Richard Burr (R-NC) and Vice-Chair Mark Warner (D-VA), for their work and this report. This is an excellent list of guidelines and one which has been suggested in different guises by many in the the field. While some of the recommendations are more challenging than others (for example, what does a paper backup of a statewide registration list look like?) the overall tenor – that states and localities need to look for ways to protect their systems, and the federal government should offer assistance and resources to make that possible – is spot on. Here’s hoping that these guidelines mean that the Committee, and Congress generally, are prepared to offer more funds to state and local election officials for the long haul.

Stay tuned …

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