Homeland Security chief touts effort on election cybersecurity

Homeland Security chief touts effort on election cybersecurity
© Greg Nash

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenOver 30 cities oppose Trump proposal on immigration benefits Internet gambling addiction is a looming crisis John Kelly to leave White House at year's end MORE on Tuesday touted the department’s effort to engage with state and local officials on guarding U.S. voting infrastructure from cyber threats, stressing that public trust in vote counts “relies on secure election infrastructure.”

Nielsen issued the statement highlighting the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) recent meetings with state and local election officials, which included classified briefings from U.S. intelligence officials on cyber threats to U.S. voting infrastructure. 

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“The American public’s confidence that their vote counts — and is counted correctly — relies on secure election infrastructure,” Nielsen said Tuesday. “The first primaries of the 2018 midterm election cycle are just around the corner, and DHS and our federal, state and local partners have been working together for more than a year to bolster the cybersecurity of the nation’s election infrastructure.”

The meetings are part of Homeland Security’s new effort to engage with stakeholders on the security of U.S. voting infrastructure.

The department under the Obama administration designated voting data systems and other election infrastructure as “critical” following Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, offering up federal assistance to states that request it.

Moscow’s multipronged interference effort has underscored fears of foreign threats to voter databases and other systems used to conduct elections after officials revealed that Russian hackers targeted digital systems in 21 states before the 2016 vote. 

Homeland Security has maintained that none of the systems were involved in vote tallying and that most of the targeting efforts were not successful. Officials continue to emphasize that there is no evidence any vote tallies were tampered with.

The meetings took place over several days late last week and involved representatives from Homeland Security, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS), and the National Association of State Election Directors, according to the department.

As part of the meetings, Homeland Security and officials with the Office of Director of National Intelligence and the FBI gave state officials a classified briefing on foreign threats to U.S. election infrastructure. 

According to The New York Times, some state officials were disappointed by the classified briefing on Friday because it did not offer clear information about the Russia threat.  

Nielsen said she met privately with leaders of the NASS, which represents state secretaries across the country who serve as their states’ chief election officials. 

“I thanked them for their partnership and pledged the Department will continue its support to state and local election officials, primarily through sharing timely and actionable threat information and offering cybersecurity services,” Nielsen said.

The critical infrastructure designation has at times been a source of tension between federal and state election officials. State officials have complained that they have not received timely threat information and face long waits for security clearances in order to receive classified briefings. 

Homeland Security officials have pledged that they are working to more quickly provide clearances to state officials and offer timely cybersecurity assistance to states that ask for it, such as rigorous risk and vulnerability assessments of their systems.