Despite near constant news around accusations of election interference, the 2020 general election has been called “the most secure in American history” by the DHS Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, in a joint statement representing U.S. government and election sector representatives. Compared to 2016, our most recent election demonstrated the successful outcomes of years of preparation, coordination, and concerted focus on security.

While secure elections are vitally important to our country, the topic only seems to gain attention of many entities and people every four years.  However, as security professionals can relate, mature security practices require continual attention. Our nation’s adversaries remain persistent, and so should our cyber defenders. Now — not four years from now — is the time to begin preparing for the security of the 2024 election.

Why is Election Interference Such a Concern in the US?

First, it’s important to understand that no matter who or what’s on the ballot, the United States holds a role on the global stage that will make it a target of election interference. 2016 seems to mark the year when election interference made its way into dinner conversations, due to the Russian hacking, disinformation and other efforts to influence the outcome of the presidential election that year. Russia appears to have been at it again, along with Iran and China, putting their thumb on the scales of the democratic process for a variety of reasons.

Foreign adversaries like those mentioned above as well as well-resourced groups or individuals can have many motivations:

  • Sway voter opinion
  • Shift U.S. government policies
  • Increase discord
  • Undermine people’s confidence in democratic systems
  • Interfere with the voting process
  • Steal sensitive data
  • Cast doubt on election validity

Some of these goals and the means by which they are achieved are more difficult to protect against than others. While everyone from voters to political campaigns, election officials and members of government has a role to play in limiting the impact of election interference attempts, much of the work falls to investigators and cybersecurity professionals to understand the interference and how to protect against it.

Improve Election Interference Investigations

The tradecraft of investigating enemies of election security is fraught with risk for both the investigator and the entity they represent. If investigation targets realize someone’s looking through their dirty laundry, the investigation could be blown and the target could seek retribution against human or technical resources of the case.

In the run-up to the 2024 election, it’s critical that those conducting investigations have the right tools and processes to ensure they can move through caseloads efficiently and securely, without putting themselves or their organizations at risk. Proper web isolation and anonymity/misattribution are key capabilities that underpin the success and safety of investigations requiring online research — which, these days, which don’t? For components of investigations requiring more of a human touch, reference the latest double-o handbook.

Improve Campaign Security

Adversaries often target political campaigns to influence the outcome of the election. The hacking and release of John Podesta’s emails had major implications on the success of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign to which he belonged.

Since then, it seems many campaigns have taken precaution, but there’s still a long way to go, especially as threats continue to evolve. On the road to 2024, campaigns should look at continuing the good work they’ve done in the areas of:

  • Cyber hygiene (patching, following vendor advisories, increasing user awareness, implementing two-factor authentication, etc.)
  • Collaborating and sharing relevant cybersecurity information with proper law enforcement and election authorities
  • Establishing and practicing incident response programs and contingency planning

Improve Election Infrastructure

In the U.S., election infrastructure is decentralized and varies state to state. This decentralized approach also means election security can vary widely depending on where you are in the country. While it seems unlikely that in the next two years the nation would shift to a centralized election infrastructure (which carries its own security concerns), regulations could be put in place to raise the bar on security. Improvements to the security around voter registration databases and associated IT systems, as well as voting and election systems could be made in time for 2024. Contingency planning is also incredibly important to ensure elections can go off without a hitch — and on a national scale for a country in the crossites of adversaries around the world, have a backup to the backup to the backup.

Vote

To the average voter, it may seem like the odds are against you for casting a vote that counts. But it’s important to remember, while our elections are under threat, the outcome of the election still remains in your hands. Stay informed, think critically on the information you consume (especially on social media!) and be aware of the propaganda and disinformation that’s out there trying to sway your opinion or undermine your confidence in your vote. And most importantly: Exercise your right to vote!

Related Resources

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