Security Experts Uneasy as US Barrels Into 2020 Election

WASHINGTON (CN) – Cautious about the government’s efforts to safeguard the 2020 presidential race, election-security experts worry that the job is too formidable to finish in the time that remains.

One of the voting machines offered by Election Systems & Software, which brought a federal complaint against Cook County, Illinois, on Sept. 25, 2018.

One issue at stake is outdated voting machines and technology, but Maurice Turner, a senior technologist with the Center for Democracy and Technology, warned that equipment updates require legislatures to make funding appropriations. 

With the first 2020 primaries scheduled for February, the process of issuing, receiving and evaluating proposals along can take months. After that comes testing and configuration, another months-long process, before the machines can be delivered on a large scale.

“No election official wants to be rolling out new equipment 30 or 60 days before the general election,” Turner said in a phone interview, “so they’re going to need to identify other races, other contests they can test this equipment on.”

Turner likewise called it unlikely that Congress will coalesce around bills that would provide additional funds or authorizations to Homeland Security.

“I just think that it’s going to be a challenge to get something done at the federal level in time to have a meaningful impact on the 2020 general election,” Turner said.

Ballot boxes line the wall on the first floor of Lewiston, Maine, City Hall, on Nov. 5, 2018, ready to be delivered to the voting locations Tuesday morning after the voting has begun. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal via AP)

Another important issue is securing voting equipment from any kind of interference or tampering. 

Earlier this week the Justice Department and Homeland Security announced that they had found “no material impact” on election or campaign infrastructure, or from foreign interference, during the 2018 midterms. That conclusion was based on a classified report assembled by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Turner questioned the language in the sparse press release.

“I don’t know if this announcement or this press release means that there was actually nothing, or what actions were taken offensively or defensively by the U.S. government to prevent or deter any sort of foreign interference,” he said.

Careful not to express too much pessimism, Turner noted that election-security efforts have been ongoing. He cautioned, however, that election officials need to continually evaluate and reconsider election security so the U.S. isn’t caught off guard again like it was in 2016, when Russia tried to sway the election in favor of then-candidate Donald Trump.

Dean Boyd, chief communications officer for the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, noted in an email Tuesday that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the FBI and Homeland Security recently hosted a classified workshop for state election officials to prepare for the 2020 general election.

According to a Tuesday press release from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, discussions at the workshop focused on threat mitigation, as well as understanding foreign adversaries’ intent and capabilities to harm U.S. election infrastructure. 

Similar workshops were held in preparation for the 2018 midterm elections, the press release said.

Homeland Security determined that hackers, thought to be Russian, targeted and successfully penetrated several voting systems in 21 states during the 2016 election. Still the agency has said no evidence exists to suggest that voter rolls were altered.

Turner with the Center for Technology and Democracy commended Homeland Security’s effort to work with states to improve election infrastructure and information sharing. But he noted that the misinformation campaigns are likely to ramp up for the 2020 general election.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a House Energy and Commerce hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, April 11, 2018, about the use of Facebook data to target American voters in the 2016 election and data privacy. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

And while social-media platforms are ramping up their own efforts to combat accounts that spread disinformation, Turner wondered how the federal government might respond to offensive cyber operations, like those Russia waged against Ukraine and Estonia to disrupt critical infrastructure.

In early January, 2017 – just weeks before President Trump was inaugurated – the Obama administration designated election infrastructure as critical infrastructure. Turner said this gives the federal government more leeway to counter offensive cyberattacks on U.S. elections.

“I’m interested to see how the U.S. government would respond if there was an increase in foreign interference that was attributable to a specific country under the direction of their leadership,” he said.

He also wondered, however, if the U.S. public is ready to face an attack that could cast doubt on the results of a local or national race, requiring a new election.

“That seems like something that hasn’t been tested yet, but it may very well be in 2020,” Turner said.

Noting that the 2018 midterms were quiet in terms of interference, Turner said the stakes will be higher in 2020, particularly if the tactics and capabilities used to interfere in the 2016 election evolve.

Those tactics, he noted, can be used by foreign and domestic adversaries alike.

“Without stringent security protocols and auditing protocols – local election officials, state secretaries of state – may not be able to ‘prove’ that the elections weren’t tampered with,” he said.

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