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States Look to Guard to Thwart Election Hackers

Washington Report

National Guard cyber experts are on duty or on call in many states to help protect next week’s general election from online threats.

Twenty-seven states mobilized Guard cybersecurity cells in 2018 to help local authorities harden voter-registration databases and related networks before the mid-term elections and monitor the systems during the voting.  

The number will likely be higher this year, say Guard officials.

The activations two years ago came after Russian hackers probed election computers in every state in 2016, penetrating databases in at least two, Florida and Illinois, according to intelligence reports.

The big worry is that foreign actors could change enough votes to swing an election. That’s nearly impossible, experts say, as voting machines are not connected to the internet and votes are counted and audited at thousands of individual polling places.

A more plausible concern is hackers altering voter registration information. Hackers could also change the results on official websites on election night. Either action would diminish faith in the democratic process — a worthwhile result to some of the nation’s adversaries.

“What we’re seeing more times now than even four years ago is states are looking to the National Guard to help them be prepared,” says Col. George Haynes, the chief of cyberspace operations at the National Guard Bureau. “It’s really, ‘What can you do to make sure I’m ready for the election.’”

The Guard’s response to cyberattacks mirrors its response to other disasters, such as fires, floods, hurricanes and civil unrest. They take their orders from their civilian partners and offer their expertise and capabilities to support the state’s mission in any way their governors need them.

This collaboration between local, state and national entities and the National Guard is what Haynes calls the “whole of government approach.”

While agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security are the point organization when it comes to election security, their abilities are augmented by the capabilities of Guardsmen, many of whom have civilian-acquired cyber skills.

In some states, Guard cyber experts have been working with state elections officials since early in the year.

The Washington’s Air Guard’s 194th Wing has helped harden election systems by analyzing traffic, monitoring firewalls, testing defense protocols and identifying vulnerabilities.

“The secretary of state’s office has been a willing partner and said, ‘Hey, bring your best hackers and do your worst,’” said Col. Ken Borchers, the wing commander. “They’re taking an avant-garde approach to cybersecurity in that they really want to test themselves to make sure the elections system is running as best as it can.”

Secretary of State Kim Wyman said the Washington Guard’s team augments the work her own office’s team does by monitoring network activity and conducting phishing tests and penetration testing.

The Guard mission on Election Day will be monitoring election networks and providing state and local election officials with their cyber advice should there be any breach, Guard officials said.