Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told senators that most states are being cooperative with the whole-of-government effort to protect voting systems from cyberintrusions, though there are two unnamed states “who aren’t working with us as much as we would like right now.”
Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee grilled Nielsen last week about what is being done to secure the vote in light of Russia’s campaign influence operation in the 2016, and for an inside perspective on that campaign season former DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson joined Nielsen at the witness table.
Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) praised DHS for making “great strides towards better understanding elections, better understanding the states, and providing assistance that makes a difference to the security of our elections.”
“But there’s more to do. There’s a long wait time for DHS premier services. States are still not getting all the information they feel they need to secure their systems,” Burr said. “The department’s ability to collect all the information needed to fully understand the problem is an open question, and attributing cyber attacks quickly and authoritatively is a continuing challenge.”
The chairman stressed that “this issue is urgent — if we start to fix these problems tomorrow, we still might not be in time to save the system for 2016 and 2020.”
Vice-Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) noted that in 2016 Russian actors “were able to penetrate Illinois’ voter registration database and access 90,000 voter registration records — they also attempted to target the election systems of at least 20 other states.”
“The intelligence community’s assessment last January concluded that Russia secured and maintained access to multiple elements of U.S. state and local election boards,” he said. “And the truth is clear that 2016 will not be the last of their attempts.”
Nielsen described the DHS arm of the election security mission as providing “assistance and support to those officials in the form of advice, intelligence, technical support, incident response planning, with the ultimate goal of building a more resilient, redundant, and secure election enterprise.”
“Our services are voluntary and not all election officials accept our offer of support. We continue to offer it; we continue to demonstrate its value. But in many cases state and local officials have their own resources and simply don’t require the assistance that we’re offering,” she said.
So far, the secretary told senators, “more than half” of states have signed up for DHS’ cyber hygiene scanning service, an automated remote scan “that gives state and local officials a report identifying vulnerabilities and offering recommendations to mitigate them.”
Another tool DHS is using is information sharing directly with election officials “through trusted third parties such as the Multi-State Information Sharing and Analysis Center, or MS-ISAC, and we look forward to the creation of the Election ISAC.”
Nielsen emphasized the need to “rapidly share information about potential compromises with the broader community so that everyone can defend their systems.”
“This collective defense approach makes all election systems more secure,” she said. “We’re also working with state election officials to share classified information on specific threats, including sponsoring up to three officials per state with security clearances and providing one-day read-ins as needed when needed, as we did in mid-February for the secretaries of state and election directors. We are also working with the intelligence community to rapidly declassify information to share with our stakeholders.”
Unlike DHS’ posture in 2016, Nielsen said the department now knows which person to contact in every state to share threat information.
“DHS is leading federal efforts to support and enhance the security of election systems across the country. Yet we do face a technology deficit that exists not just in election infrastructure but across state and local government systems,” she said. “It will require a significant investment over time and will require a whole-of-government solution to ensure continued confidence in our elections.”
Johnson talked about the Obama administration’s reticence to make a wrong move on Russia’s campaign interference and give the appearance that the White House was stepping into the election.
“The reality is that, given our electoral college and our current politics, national elections are decided in this country in a few precincts in a few key swing states. The outcome, therefore, may dance on the head of a pin. The writers of the TV show House of Cards have figured that out. So can others,” Johnson told lawmakers, adding he’s “pleased by reports that state election officials to various degrees are now taking serious steps to fortify cybersecurity of their election infrastructure and that the Department of Homeland Security is currently taking serious steps to work with them in that effort.”
Nielsen said DHS is trying to get security clearances for those three election contact persons in each state, but only “about 20” of those 150 officials have received the full clearance. “We’re granting interim secret clearances as quickly as we can,” she said, adding later that they’re “widely using day read-ins now, so we’re not going to let security clearances hold us up.”
The secretary said “a lot of work” has been accomplished at DHS over the past year on “related processes,” including working with the intelligence community to declassify information as “some of the information does not originate within DHS, so we need to work with our partners to be able to share it.”
“The second one is on victim notification. We have a role there, but so does FBI and so does MS-ISAC, which in this case the Multi-State Information Sharing and Analysis Center was in some cases the first organization to identify some of the targeting,” Nielsen said. “So we have to work with whomever originates the information. We all have different roles. So we’ve worked to pull it all together so that we can quickly notify victims of what has occurred.”
Pressed on the current level of cyber threat from malicious actors heading into midterm elections, Nielsen replied that “the threat remains high.”
“We think vigilance is important, and we think there is a lot that we all need to do at all levels of government before we have the midterm elections,” she said. “I will say our decentralized nature both makes it difficult to have a nationwide effect, but also makes it perhaps of greater threat at a local level. And, of course, if it’s a swing state or swing area that can, in turn, have a national effect.”
“So what we’re looking at is everything from registration and validation of voters — so those are the databases, through to the casting and the tabulation of votes, through to the transmission — the election night reporting, and then, of course, the — the certification and the auditing on the back end. All of those are potential vulnerabilities. All of those require different tools and different attention by state and locals,” Nielsen continued, adding that the federal government continues to work with state and local jurisdictions “to also help them look at physical security.”
“They need to make sure that the locations where the voting machines are kept, as well as the tabulation areas, they need access control and very traditional security like we would in other critical infrastructure areas,” she said.
Johnson told senators that “with the benefit of two years’ hindsight it does seem plain… that the Russian effort has not been contained; it has not been deterred.”
“In my experience, superpowers respond to sufficient deterrence and will not engage in behavior that is cost prohibitive. Plainly, that has not occurred and more needs to be done,” the former DHS chief said. “With the benefit of hindsight, the sanctions we issued in late December  have not worked as an effective deterrent and it’s now on the current administration to add to those and follow through on those.”