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New USAID Guide: Cybersecurity Across the Electoral Process

By Wayan Vota on November 2, 2022

usaid election protection guide

Since electronic voting technology was first introduced, a variety of new technologies have been developed and integrated into elections around the world, affecting each step of the election process. In many cases, these technologies are efficient, reduce the risk of human error, improve accessibility, and can mitigate or prevent some types of election fraud.

As election management bodies (EMBs) have taken up new technologies – particularly around digitization of voter registries, transmission processes and aggregation of election results – multiple sources of policy, principle and practice in electoral cybersecurity have emerged to address the potential for disruptive cyber attacks.

Cybersecurity Threats in the Electoral Process

However, significant gaps remain in developing further guidance and regulation for election management bodies, policymakers, and electoral stakeholders to ensure that electoral technology is secured from threats and trusted by the public. Failure to address electoral cybersecurity risks can pose a critical threat to electoral integrity.

Direct election manipulation

Malign actors may attempt to manipulate elections directly, undermine public confidence in elections, or erode the legitimacy of elected representatives and bodies by exploiting vulnerabilities in electronic information processing and cyberspace. Such loss in trust and concerns about legitimacy could impede development initiatives and undermine effective and accountable governance.

As the number of election technology applications grows, elections have begun to attract the attention of a wider spectrum of threat actors. Cyberspace, despite all the societal benefit and economic value it has helped create, is also an arena of strategic competition and criminal activity. The electronic information systems in use across electoral processes are therefore important elements of critical national infrastructure that can be attacked.

Election system cyber attacks

There are well known examples of cyber attacks focused on elections launched by well-resourced foreign state actors with the aim of undermining trust in democratic processes and the legitimacy of their outcomes. Domestic actors have also emerged to threaten elections. They may be politically, financially, or ideologically motivated, and operate individually or collectively, but like their foreign counterparts they are finding ways to undermine trust in elections. The emergence of these domestic actors means that institutions charged with upholding the integrity of elections must also work to recognize and mitigate potential insider threats.

Election managers should look to trends identified within the wider field of cybersecurity analysis to understand the types of attacks that can potentially impact systems falling under their purview. While denial of service attacks that overload infrastructure and other relatively unsophisticated attacks are still occurring, recent analysis has highlighted how a commoditized market for sophisticated tools and methods has lowered barriers and allowed lesser resourced actors to purchase greater malicious effect.

Threat actors often also use methods of deception to trick users into clicking on malicious links or disclosing sensitive information like passwords in a practice called “phishing.” Often nation-state actors will utilize their intelligence resources to target individuals using content tailored or engineered specifically for that person in the practice of spear-phishing.

Once sensitive information is obtained, it can often be leveraged to compromise systems and establish a foothold within a network. That foothold can then be utilized for any number of purposes. Criminal elements may, for example, deploy software that encrypts data in financial extortion schemes. Nation-states or other sophisticated actors may use such a foothold to execute further penetration of a network and exfiltrate sensitive and confidential information they can leverage for intelligence purposes.

Multiple election protection actors

The range of stakeholders that are being targeted with cyber attacks – and are working to prevent and respond to them – is also expanding. For instance, election management bodies have taken up a role in risk analysis, mitigation, and response to threats against their systems and equipment. Civil society organizations, political parties, and candidates have also been targeted by threat actors that are driven by distinct motives. Each stakeholder group must assess their own specific vulnerabilities and develop and take ownership of a cyber mitigation strategy.

Effective cyber threat detection and mitigation is characterized by a continuous and well-defined process of risk management that hews to industry best practices defined in several standard risk management frameworks. While governments and industry have widely adopted and typically follow these frameworks, adherence is often limited by resource availability, competing priorities and lack of cybersecurity advocacy.

Cybersecurity Guidance in the Electoral Process

The purpose of Understanding Cybersecurity Throughout the Electoral Process: A Reference Document is to help USAID Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance (DRG) staff and other relevant U.S. Government personnel to better understand the nature of electoral cybersecurity risks and threats in the contexts in which they work. Drawing on the fields of both electoral management and cybersecurity risk management, it provides an entry-level overview of electoral cybersecurity threats, vulnerabilities, threat actors, and mitigation measures across key aspects of the electoral process. It also outlines good practices that EMBs can leverage to mitigate and address cyber threats.

The report is designed to be useful to individuals that may not have prior cybersecurity knowledge. It focuses on the risks and mitigation activities that EMBs and their partners might face during pre-election, election and post-election periods. By understanding the wide range of potential risks and threats they may face, EMBs will be better able to prioritize where to expend their resources and how to adapt existing risk management frameworks and cybersecurity good practices to their context.

Everyone can protect election systems

It should be noted that many EMBs will not be able to address escalating cyber attacks on their own. Information technology is used across the entirety of an election cycle, and is owned, maintained, and used by a variety of actors – from software and hardware providers, candidates and other institutions that play a role in election administration.

Yet, because the activities performed across the electoral process are interrelated, security compromises or breaches to one involved stakeholder can have wide-reaching effects. Considering this reality, EMBs will need to work with other stakeholders (such as state offices that compile civil registries from which voters lists may be pulled, or authorities auditing voting machines)to establish mature cybersecurity postures to holistically recognize and manage the risks individually and collectively across the electoral process.

In particular, a review of recent trends indicates that EMBs and their partners may face particular challenges when it comes to protecting voter registration databases and results tabulation and transmission systems – which are attractive targets for cyber attacks to undermine stakeholder acceptance of electoral outcomes.

Voter register databases and functions can increasingly be accessed online by members of the public — either to simply check registration status, or to execute voter registration or absentee ballot requests. This ease of access must be balanced with the risk that such resources may be compromised by malicious actors undermining election processes.

Improving cyber hygiene

These risks can be further compounded by poor cyber hygiene among institutions and users involved in administering and maintaining election technology, along with ad hoc and piecemeal approaches to cybersecurity involving third parties, technology procurement and multi-stakeholder collaboration.

Therefore, it is important that the concern of cybersecurity be addressed holistically throughout electoral infrastructure. election management bodies need to educate users of electronic information systems in proper cyber-hygiene. Policies and processes that inculcate and support cybersecurity good practice need to be put in place, and election management bodies will need to invest in executive oversight, advocacy, and management of cybersecurity through professionalized and dedicated workforce roles.

A lightly edited executive summary of Understanding Cybersecurity Throughout the Electoral Process: A Reference Document

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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of his employer, any of its entities, or any ICTWorks sponsor.
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