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6 vital reforms to ensure cybersecurity of US elections

The 2020 presidential election campaign is well underway, but the fallout from cyberattacks during the 2016 election continues to reverberate.

Despite widespread awareness of Russian interference in that election, efforts to undermine the U.S. electoral system remain, say a panel of cybersecurity experts on the On-Demand CLE “Hacking Elections: Cyber Threats, Vulnerabilities, and the Way Forward.” 

Panelist Suzanne Spaulding, the senior adviser for homeland security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., said that Russian campaigns to spread misinformation are still prevalent.

“We have been gathering evidence over the last year-and-a-half of propaganda and information operations targeting and eroding public confidence in the independence and impartiality and competence in our justice system,” she said, noting a significant uptick during the run-up to the last U.S. midterm elections.

These attacks could include embarrassing candidates with stolen confidential information, covertly created social media pages to spread disinformation as well as divisive narratives that would appeal to international media outlets.

And Russia isn’t the only actor in election meddling. China and Iran are also threats, according to fellow panelist William A. Carter of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The panel said that the United States is not only vulnerable to propaganda from these countries, but to attacks on its voting technology, too.

U.S. elections are conducted in a decentralized way – 9,000 jurisdictions administer elections involving more than 175,000 precincts – rather than a single national vote counting and reporting system, thereby making it difficult for a hacker to hit them all.

But with various voter equipment and different election databases in use across the country, malicious actors could exploit the most vulnerable systems in some state and local jurisdictions with a deliberate attack, said David S. Turetsky, professor of Homeland Security and Cybersecurity at the University at Albany, SUNY.

So how should we address this growing problem?

A former undersecretary with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in charge of strengthening the nation’s cybersecurity, Spalding has been working with the ABA Standing Committee on Law and National Security to train judges, build resilience in U.S. electoral institutions and help build public trust against pernicious messaging and disinformation campaigns. She sees particular promise in the defensive strategies developed by Harvard Kennedy School’s Defending Digital Democracy Project.

The panel also proposed several vital reforms to immediately implement:

  • Designate election systems as critical infrastructure;
  • Increase resilience by using voter-verified paper ballots and conducting postelection audits;
  • Replace outdated voting machines;
  • Secure voter registration systems and e-pollbooks;
  • Increase funding and training;
  • Expand information sharing; and
  • Address propaganda by passing the Honest Ads Act.

The on-demand webinar, available to ABA members at no charge, is sponsored by the ABA Cybersecurity Legal Task Force and ABA CLE.


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