electionlineWeekly Features Nebraska’s Award-Winning Election Cybersecurity Work

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The latest electionlineWeekly features a story about an election cybersecurity program in Nebraska that’s breaking new ground – and garnering accolades in the process. electionline’s Mindy Moretti has more:

When voters began heading to the polls in 2016, less than half of states had an Albert sensor — an Intrusion Detection System that provides enhanced monitoring capabilities and notifications of malicious activity — on their statewide voter registration databases.

Today, all 50 states, the District of Columbia and two territories have the election security measure at work. But there’s something a bit different about the Albert sensor in Nebraska and four other states.

Thanks to an award-winning partnership between the Nebraska Secretary of State’s Office, their vendor ES&S and the Elections Infrastructure Information Sharing and Analysis Center (EI-ISAC), the Cornhusker State and four others are now using an Albert sensor that is not the typical physical hardware placed at the state level, but software that is placed in the voter registration environment at a private elections vendor.

Nebraska’s program was the first to place the sensors on a vendor network:

According to Wayne Bena, director of elections for the state of Nebraska, the whole thing came about from a simple question.

When the EI-ISAC, made available an Albert sensor to each state to protect voter registration systems, Nebraska already had sensors covering the state network but the voter registration system was housed separately on the network of the state’s vendor.

“During a conference call with CIS a simple question was asked, ‘Can the Albert sensor be used to protect the voter registration system housed outside the state’s network?’” Bena said. “This question started the process to clear any administrative hurdles that allowed this sensor to be the first one placed on the voter registration environment of a private elections vendor.”

For Ben Spear, director of the EI-ISAC, while the question was unexpected, it was one they welcomed.

“We don’t see why not, as long as the vendor is amenable and we can fit within their network design,” Spear said.

Bena credits the “amazing work” of the state’s vendor and the Department of Homeland Security/Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency to make the project a reality.

“Much of the work that was done by the secretary of state’s office was to work on contracts and memorandums of understanding that took into account the uniqueness of this arrangement,” Bena explained. “The Secretary of State’s office takes great pride that this project has been now replicated in four states and territories.”

The conversation started in May 2018 and the project was approved in June 2018. The process of figuring out how this would work and testing different options took most of the summer and the sensor was online in October 2018.

“Using virtualization to support multiple jurisdictions at a vendor site laid the groundwork for future Albert enhancements that will help improve the ability of state, local, tribal, and territorial governments to secure their networks in local, hosted, and cloud environments,” Spear said.

While there are currently no Albert sensors in the cloud, Spear said it’s a work in progress.

“What we have done with Nebraska and ES&S has allowed us to get a head start on how this would work in the cloud,” Spear said. “We’re hoping to have that available by the end of 2019.”

Bena believes the project shows the great work that can be done by state and federal government collaborating with the private sector to protect the U.S. elections. And Matt Masterson, DHS senior cybersecurity advisor, Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), couldn’t agree more.

“The work that Ben and his team did with Wayne to figure this out was significant because other states hadn’t really thought about this,” said Matt Masterson, DHS senior cybersecurity advisor, CISA. “It’s certainly impactful and leading to innovation beyond it.”

Being “the first” at something, or an innovator can be a bit scary at times, but Bena said the secretary’s office was confident in their partners and the process.

“We were confident in the technology and knew while this was the first installation of a virtual server, if testing would not have gone as planned, there were additional security measures in place to protect the system,” Bena said.

The new approach earned Nebraska an award from state election directors nationwide:

“Nebraska paved the way for states to deploy Albert sensors to election vendors. Their work with their vendor, DHS, and the EI-ISAC to implement a virtual Albert sensor is a prime example of the kinds of collaboration that state election officials are undertaking to secure our elections,” said Keith Ingram, NASED president and director of elections, Texas Secretary of State. The National Association of State Election Directors (NASED) recently honored Nebraska’s work with the inaugural Innovators Award.

The NASED Innovators Award highlights innovative training procedures, technologies, partnerships, and practices from the 50 states, District of Columbia, and the five U.S. territories. The Award is presented at the NASED Summer Conference in odd years. The winning submission is determined by the NASED Awards Committee, which can decide not to present an award in a given year. Submissions are evaluated on four criteria:

  • Efficacy – How effective was the submission at achieving the stated goal or solving the problem? How did you measure the impact?
  • Sustainability – Is this a long-term solution or will changes be needed for it to continue? Is this a program that you expect to be used regularly in your state? Will costs go down over time or will this require significant on-going investment?
  • Replicability – Is this a solution that you will use again? Would other state or local jurisdictions be able to use it?
  • Creativity – Is this a unique approach or solution?

Nebraska’s program is emblematic of a nationwide effort to get Albert sensors into as many communities as possible:

Recently, Florida became the first, and so far only, state to have all of its counties—67—with a locally-based Albert sensor to monitor their websites for potential threats.

Masterson noted that while the first priority was to get Albert sensors in all 50 states, DC and the territories, now that that goal has been met, EI-ISAC and CISA are ready to help counties get their own Albert sensor, whether it’s through a concentrated effort like in Florida or individual counties and local election jurisdictions reaching out.

“To go from an environment where we literally had states accusing us of hacking them, to let them letting us put a physical device on their systems is a tremendous credit to how seriously they are taking this threat,” Masterson said.

Thanks to Mindy for sharing this story and kudos to Nebraska, CISA, EI-ISAC and everyone else focused on protecting the nation’s election infrastructure. These programs have come a very long way in a very short time – and just in time for what is likely to be a closely-watched and high-stakes election in 2020. Stay tuned …

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