Securing Our Election
- By Saryu Nayyar
- Oct 28, 2020
The 2020 election season is a Big Deal as well it should be. The Vote, as foundational parts of the whole, is complicated in practice with history showing us just how complicated it can be. Protecting the process and making sure the Vote is fair, secure, and timely, is vital to American Democracy.
Elections in the United States are subject to attack from both foreign and domestic forces that want to forward their own agendas, and those forces will leverage whatever holes they can find in the system. While mail-in voting has gotten a great deal of attention this cycle, as has in-person voting to a lesser extent, our concern from a cybersecurity standpoint are the people, processes, and systems, that operate at most levels of the election mechanism.
In the case of mail-in voting, mechanisms have been in place for years that are designed to protect the process, and, in fact, few cases of mail-in voting fraud have been confirmed. They do happen, but the volume is miniscule compared to the number of valid votes cast. A number of states have used mail-in voting very successfully for years and the arguments against it, as they so often are in this realm, can be more political in nature than reflecting a genuine security concern. There are challenges, but they are manageable and can be addressed by security professionals with experience in that domain.
Three Key Pieces
The greater challenge is with other aspects of election security. As in other realms of data protection and cybersecurity, it boils down to protecting three key points: people, process, and systems. The people in this context are the poll workers, technical assets, and others who are actively involved in operating polling places, collecting and counting ballots, and managing the process.
The processes are the myriad steps involved in running the election, from making sure voters are registered and get the correct ballot, to assuring votes cast are valid, and that they are all tallied correctly. While it may not be obvious, many of these processes have elements that are protected under the umbrella of cybersecurity. Finally, there are the physical systems involved in processing and tallying the votes. These are the voting machines, tabulating systems, databases that enable the process to happen.
The Human Element
Each of these areas present their own unique security challenges. People are subject to compromise. Whether their credentials or stolen, their workstations compromised, or they are an active Insider Threat operating to a specific agenda, users are a potential risk.
As always, user education can go a long way to mitigating the risk posed by the Human Element. Making sure users practice good access hygiene, such as using strong passwords and multi-factor authentication, can reduce the threat, as can training users on how to identify and avoid phishing and Social Engineering attacks. Dealing with active insider threats is a separate issue.
However, there are tools, such as behavioral analytics, that can identify malicious actors and trigger automated defenses while alerting the Security Operations team of the problem. These tools are also useful for detecting and reacting to compromised accounts and related threats, all of which are betrayed by their behaviors.
Process. Process. Process.
Protecting processes are a different challenge. A process needs to be effective and efficient, but in the context of elections it must also be able to scale to deal with millions of participants, while remaining as secure as possible.
While processes can take a long time and a great deal of effort to develop and implement, they should still be subject to routine review with a focus on security. In many cases, efficiency and scale are the focus with security as an afterthought. Given the importance of secure elections, security can’t be overlooked.
Ghosts in the Machines
Defending systems is the final piece. From the voting machines citizens encounter at their polling stations, to the network equipment that connects them, and the backend databases and counting systems that tie it all together, there are numerous physical systems involved in an election. And, sadly, many of them are subject to cyberattack.
Researchers have shown on multiple occasions that voting machines can be successfully attacked, or simply knocked offline so as to slow down the voting process in a specific location. In some cases, physical attacks were trivial to accomplish and took only a few moments. To make matters worse, some demonstrably vulnerable machines are still in service.
However, poll workers with the proper education can reduce the risk against even these devices. Perhaps more concerning are the back end systems which catalog, tally, and report the votes. Like any other IT system, they can be targets for malicious actors leveraging stolen credentials, software exploits, or even unfortunate (for Voters) misconfigurations.
It’s Not too Late
Fortunately, there are tools that can help protect the systems used in elections, including the behavioral analytics tools that can spot malicious user activities. By analyzing the interactions and behaviors of voting systems, it’s possible to identify patterns that indicate a threat. Events can range from unusual traffic or unexpected access, to vote tallies that are wildly different from expectations, or simply unreasonable – such as counting more votes than registered voters.
Risky actions, and risky behaviors, can highlight potential problems and trigger an appropriate response.
With the 2020 Elections so close at hand, it’s time to take a last-minute look at the people, processes, and systems that are vital to a fair and secure election.