Warnings Of Ransomware Affecting Elections

By: Denise Simon | Founders Code

According to an intelligence report issued by the Department of Homeland Security, one of the top 2020 election security concerns is ransomware. A report entitled “Cybercriminals and Criminal Hackers Capable of Disrupting Election Infrastructure,” echos concerns CISA head Chris Krebs articulated at the Black Hat security conference in early August.

The FBI and Department of Homeland Security have issued advisories to local governments, including recommendations for preventing attacks.

“From the standpoint of confidence in the system, I think it is much easier to disrupt a network and prevent it from operating than it is to change votes,” Adam Hickey, a Justice Department deputy assistant attorney general, said in an interview.

US officials state that election interference will not be tolerated. They are proactively working with social media companies, among other groups, to help safeguard the elections.

In addition, the US Department of State’s “Rewards for Justice” program is offering a 10M to anyone who can provide information about foreign interference. The Department of State has reached out to targeted individuals in Iran soliciting information.

US officials are interested in identifying individuals who aim to disrupt campaigns, meddle with election infrastructure, and who pose threats to election officials. This is the third major “Rewards for Justice” initiative this year. More here.***

“We’re seeing state and local entities targeted with ransomware on a near-daily basis,” said Geoff Hale, a top election security official with Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

Steps taken to improve the security of voter registration systems after the 2016 election could help governments fend off election-related ransomware attacks. They’ve also acted to ensure they can recover quickly in the event of an attack.

Colorado, for example, stores redundant versions of its voter registration data at two separate secure locations so officials can easily shift operations. Backups are regular so the system can be quickly rebuilt if needed.

Even so, ransomware is an added concern for local election officials already confronting staffing and budget constraints while preparing for a shift from in-person voting to absentee balloting because of the pandemic.

In West Virginia, state officials are more concerned about the cyber threat confronting its 55 county election offices than a direct attack on the statewide voter registration system. One click from a county employee falling victim to a spearphishing attack could grant a hacker access to the county network and eventually to election systems.

“I’m more worried that those people who are working extra hours and working more days, the temporary staff that may be brought in to help process the paperwork, that all this may create a certain malaise or fatigue when they are using tools like email,” said David Tackett, chief information officer for the secretary of state.

In states that rely heavily on in-person voting and use electronic systems to check in voters, a well-timed attack, particularly during early voting, could prevent officials from immediately verifying a voter’s eligibility, making paper backups critical.

For states conducting elections entirely by mail, including Colorado, an attack near Election Day may have little effect on voting because ballots are sent early to all voters, with few votes cast in-person. But it could disrupt vote-tallying, forcing officials to process ballots by hand.

In many states, local officials will face an influx of new ballot requests. That means they’ll need constant access to voter data as they handle these requests. An attack could cause major disruptions.

Hickey said he was unaware of ransomware attacks directly targeting election infrastructure. But local election offices are often connected to larger county networks and not properly insulated or protected.

A criminal targeting a county or state “may not even know what parts of the network they got into,” Hickey said. But as the malware creeps along and spreads, “what gets bricked is the entire network — and that includes but is not limited to election infrastructure.”

Even if election infrastructure isn’t directly targeted, there would likely be immediate assumptions it was, said Ron Bushar of the FireEye cybersecurity company.

A February advisory issued by the FBI and obtained by The Associated Press recommends local governments separate election-related systems from county and state systems to ensure they aren’t affected in an unrelated attack.

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