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Expert panel lays out potential risks for the 2018 election cycle and beyond

Speaking at a panel on election security in Chicago last night, Douglas Lute, former US Ambassador to NATO, said he remains very concerned that Russian interference in the 2016 elections has eroded the public’s confidence in the election system, the cornerstone of the American democracy.

“What happened in the 2016 election is as serious a national security threat as I’ve seen in the last 40 years,” said Lute. “When you think of events such as Pearl Harbor and 9-11, those are physical attacks and terrible as they are, we can recover from them. But if we lose confidence in the election system, that erosion is more serious.”

The panel discussion, “Secure the Vote,” was sponsored by DEF CON, which held a Voting Machine Hacker Village during its August event, and by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Also participating were Rick Driggers, deputy assistant secretary at the US Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of Cybersecurity & Communications, and Greg Bales, community outreach coordinator in Sen. Richard Durbin’s (D-Ill.) office. The panel moderator was Jake Braun, cybersecurity instructor at the University of Chicago.

Braun hailed the panel as the first time the executive and legislative branches of government got together to publicly discuss hacking of the US election system.

In September, DHS informed 21 US states that some component of their respective election systems had been targeted by Russian state-sponsored cybercriminals during the 2016 election campaign. According to DHS, no votes were changed and many of the targets experienced only vulnerability scans. Last night’s discussion was held ahead of the nation’s first primaries this March in Illinois and Texas, both of which were among the 21 targeted states. 

Lute kicked off the panel with five points for attendees to consider:

  • Russia is a proven threat. Although President Donald Trump has rejected the validity of reports on election tampering, national security agencies agreed that Russia attacked our election system in 2016 and that it was state-sponsored under the direction of Russian President Vladimir Putin, said Lute.
  • Russia is not going away. President Putin is likely to win another six-year term this year in an uncontested election, and even if something happened to Putin, he would be replaced by a similar figure who will look to expand on global election hacking efforts, said Lute.
  • Other nation-states are potential threats. It’s clear that other nations such as China, Iran and North Korea have the capability to hack into our elections and other critical businesses and infrastructure.
  • Time is short. The election cycle of 2018 is a short two months away and the 2020 Presidential race is just around the corner.
  • Our allies are vulnerable. Other countries’ elections are already experiencing cybersecurity incidents, like the data breach that hit French president Francois Macron days before the election. 

The DHS’s Driggers said DHS is available upon the request of state and local governments to provide security services such as technology assessments, information sharing and basic cyber hygiene. He said in early January 2017, DHS identified the US election system as part of the nation’s critical infrastructure, putting it on the level of our IT, defense, energy, and financial services systems.

“It’s definitely a priority in our planning,” Driggers said. “We realize that US elections are run by local election officials and our efforts are primarily to support state and local efforts.”

On the legislative front, Bales said Sen. Durbin is working hard to support the Secure Elections Act, a bill sponsored by Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) that seeks to protect against foreign interference in future elections.

“Voting is a bi-partisan American issue, so we have to make sure outside actors like Russia are not involved,” Bales said.

As for potential solutions, Lute offered three suggestions: get the entire election system off the Internet; protect the state voter registration databases; and create an audit trail by using optical scanners to track individual paper votes.

Most of Lute’s suggestions are based on the Election Security Plan developed by Noah Praetz, director of elections with the Cook County Clerk’s Office. Praetz’s plan represents the first known formal response by a local government to reported US election hacking in 2016.

Many cybersecurity researchers also called for paper voting or systems that use optical character readers to generate voter-verified paper trails after two (decommissioned) voting machines were hacked within 90 minutes during DEF CON’s Voting Machine Hacker Village in August

Click here for a replay of last night’s panel.

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Steve Zurier has more than 30 years of journalism and publishing experience, most of the last 24 of which were spent covering networking and security technology. Steve is based in Columbia, Md. View Full Bio

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