Election 2018

Clerk vs. Hackers: playing Election Day defense

State, local officials work hand-in-hand for election cybersecurity

By Cody Hooks
chooks@taosnews.com
Posted 11/1/18

Even though it's that face-to-face communication that give elections in rural places a friendly buzz, local election systems have to be on guard against an onslaught of threats from faceless hackers.

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Election 2018

Clerk vs. Hackers: playing Election Day defense

State, local officials work hand-in-hand for election cybersecurity

Posted

Taos County Clerk Anna Martinez has a lot of details to go over before Election Day, but she loves being in the voting room, helping the poll workers and chatting with voters there to cast their ballots.

"I love elections like this," Martinez said, where so many people turn out to vote early. Even though it's that face-to-face communication that give elections in rural places a friendly buzz, local election systems have to be on guard against an onslaught of threats from faceless hackers.

"Election officials like myself are taking the possible threat of foreign actors meddling in our elections very seriously," New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver said during a July hearing on election cybersecurity in the U.S. House of Representatives.

"While state and local officials have always been focused on election security, the focus of our national organizations and the federal government has increased significantly since the summer of 2016. It is clear that election security will be a priority for state, local and federal officials as well as the general public moving forward," she said.

Since 2006, New Mexico has used paper ballots instead of digital voting machines where the ballot exists exclusively on a screen. The ballots are scanned into a tabulator, which counts the votes. Though the system leaves a paper trail and can be re-counted as needed, there's still an awful lot of interface with digital systems.

And it's those aspects of elections that have officials on alert.

Toulouse Oliver said that more than 80 percent of discussions at an annual gathering of secretaries of state focused in on election cybersecurity.

The greatest cyber threats facing local clerks like Martinez are malware, phishing scams, a general lack of information technology resources and targeted attacks, according to Alex Curtas, the director of communications for the New Mexico Secretary of State.

One of the most common forms of attack is a "denial of service" where hackers flood a local computer network with immense volumes of traffic, which can essentially shut down networks and communication -- vital and interrelated elements of making sure votes are reported correctly.

Some safeguards are in place. For example, the voting machines used throughout New Mexico aren't connected to the internet or a shared server; they're just plugged into the wall. (All counties use Dominion Voting System-brand machines purchased by the state but stored and cared for locally).

Once the polls close, precinct captains bring a digital data storage card to the county, where votes are processed in a secure voting room that is a stand-alone computer. That information is then walked to another room, where Martinez sends the information to the secretary of state through a secure website.

But with elections dependent on digital systems and with hackers able to focus in on small jurisdictions, local officials are reliant on the state to fill in the gaps in their defense.

To that end, the state plans to spend about $3.6 million over five years specifically on election security.

The money was allocated as part of the Help America Vote Act, totaling $380 million in federal grants.

In New Mexico, a significant portion of those funds, $935,000, will buy newer models of voting machines.

However, an even bigger part of the money will go toward helping local election offices.

The state plans to spend more than $1.5 million to develop an election security program, which will come up with and help carry out "security best practices to safeguard sensitive data and election systems and protect against cyber vulnerabilities," according to an August report on the grant. A full-time director of that program has been hired, according to Curtas.

Furthermore, more than $350,000 will be spent to find and address the biggest cyber vulnerabilities in county offices. And another $500,000 will be spent to help counties bankroll improvements they couldn't afford or technically scope out on their own: things like patching and upgrading systems that are too old and rolling out automated tools to keep up with hackers.

Though cybersecurity threats are constantly bombarding networks like that operated by Taos County, Martinez is confident that the system is secure.

Now she just needs people to turn out to vote on Election Day.

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