Amid Pandemic, Election Officials Remain Vigilant Toward Cybersecurity
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Election officials across the country spent the past four years preparing for very different circumstances. Like all of American life, the coronavirus pandemic has thrown those plans into disarray. All this week we'll be talking about what voting will look like during this national emergency. And we are joined now by NPR's Miles Parks, who covers voting. Hi, Miles.
MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.
MARTIN: So since 2016, really, it's been all about cybersecurity, has it not?
PARKS: Yeah. I mean, that's definitely been the first priority. The main focus has been on hardening our defenses and getting U.S. election officials thinking like they're going to be targets this time around. I talked to Barb Byrum, who's the county clerk in Ingham County, Mich. She spends her days, you know, giving out marriage licenses, going through vital records. And she's also the chief election official for the county. You know, just to give you an idea of how seriously she's been taking this stuff, in the past few years since 2016, she's been a two different hacker conventions to learn more about computers and how they work.
BARB BYRUM: My degree is not technology, so I need to learn from people who know about computers, know about cybersecurity.
MARTIN: All right, so what's the verdict here? Are we better prepared than we were in 2016?
PARKS: Absolutely. I mean, I'd say it's pretty hard to find anyone who thinks we're worse off than we were four years ago from a security perspective. More than a billion dollars nationwide have been poured into security improvements. But the worry now from security experts I've talked to is that the pandemic could throw a wrench into all of that preparation.
BETSY COOPER: Whatever your plans were before, they're going to be very different now.
PARKS: That's Betsy Cooper. She's a cybersecurity expert and the executive director of the Aspen Tech Policy Hub.
COOPER: You can't just assume that because you planned for something that lived in a very different environment that you'll be prepared for something that has changed dramatically in light of the pandemic.
PARKS: The next five months present a challenge for election officials - change your entire election game plan while also staying focused on the cybersecurity threats. One problem with that is money, says Ben Hovland. He's a commissioner with the Election Assistance Commission, an agency that's in charge of getting federal money to the states. The pandemic presents loads of new costs for local election officials, he says.
BEN HOVLAND: You're going to need to have hand sanitizer, hand-washing stations. You're going to need to have the space to be able to socially distance your poll workers and your voters. You know, there are all these other costs just in your polling place environment that weren't budgeted for.
PARKS: That's in addition to ramping up voting by mail as fast as possible, another expense that wasn't budgeted for.
HOVLAND: And that also happens at the same time as state and local budgets are cratering. So it's not like, you know, people have a lot of extra money sitting around.
PARKS: Congress recently allocated $400 million to local election officials to respond to the pandemic. But many experts say that's only a fraction of the billions needed to get the country prepared for November. Hovland's agency, the EAC, released guidance that said states could also use money that was originally allocated by Congress to improve security to respond to the pandemic.
HOVLAND: Are they going to dig into the security grant money? You know, I think it's certainly possible if there's not additional congressional funding.
PARKS: Hovland says his agency won't know exactly how much of the security money will wind up being spent on pandemic response until later this year. It's not that localities aren't thinking about security, Hovland says. It's that they're being faced with tough choices right now.
HOVLAND: I don't hear anyone saying that security issues have gone away. And, in fact, you know, I think what a lot of people are recognizing is the need to now do those in addition to these new changes to how they're administering the election.
PARKS: For example, some states are having to quickly stand up new online registration portals. And with so many government employees now working from home, they could be more vulnerable to phishing attacks. Those sorts of attacks were how Russian operatives broke into the email accounts of prominent Democrats and the systems of some Florida election officials in 2016. Aaron Higbee of the cybersecurity firm Codefense (ph) says those attacks look simple in hindsight. He recently saw a phishing email sent to one of his customers by the same Russian hacking group.
AARON HIGBEE: It is very sophisticated. It is personalized, and they put a lot of effort into making it look legitimate. You know, what that says to me is they didn't have to try that hard to hack the 2016 election. They're certainly more capable, and that's what we should be looking out for.
PARKS: You know, the question is, with everything else they have to worry about, will the thousands of election officials across the U.S. also be able to stay on the lookout for cyber risks?
MARTIN: Right. Thanks for that report, Miles. So what else should we be looking out for that's perhaps been sidelined because of the pandemic?
PARKS: I think something else is social media influence operations, which also played a big role four years ago. You know, people are using social media now, Rachel, more than ever before as a result of the pandemic, so misinformation could play a role. You know, right now, much of that misinformation is kind of focused on the coronavirus. But experts think that as we get closer to the elections, all of those websites, all of that fake news will end up pointing toward election content.
MARTIN: All right. NPR's Miles Parks, we appreciate it. Thanks.
PARKS: Thank you.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The radio version of this story incorrectly identified the firm that Aaron Higbee works for. It is Cofense, not Codefense.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.