Cybersecurity

Washington's Fall Agenda: Midterms to test new security efforts

Congress and the White House are facing a number of important issues this fall. But the clock is ticking with the November midterms looming and the end of the year fast approaching. Here's a look at Washington's agenda and the key stories The Hill will be watching in the months ahead.

Cybersecurity issues are expected to take center stage this fall as officials and the tech world look to prevent any repeat of foreign adversaries interfering in U.S. elections.

The midterms are a little over two months away but a major effort to pass legislation to respond directly to Russia's efforts to penetrate state websites and voter systems has come to a grinding halt.

The Secure Elections Act, which has bipartisan support, is aimed at boosting the security of U.S. election systems and increasing confidence in voting results. It would establish a paper trail to audit the election results and give states money to boost the cybersecurity of voting systems. It is unclear if the legislation will pass this fall.

Some reports claimed the White House killed the bill, a claim fiercely disputed by Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), who introduced the bill with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.).

Lankford attributed the delay to concerns from state and local election officials over the bill's language. The Oklahoma senator, however, sounded optimistic about its passage after a markup of the bill was postponed in August, saying the delay just highlighted the interest in the bill and focus on passing meaningful legislation.

Klobuchar, though, broke with Lankford, saying politics was at play and hitting some Republicans on the Senate Rules Committee for not backing the bill.

State election officials have raised concerns over the bill, claiming that some provisions - including one to rename a technical advisory group and add more members to it - could hurt security efforts.

All eyes will be on Lankford and Klobuchar to see if they can successfully move the bill in time for the November midterm elections.

Concerns over election security are only likely to grow amid a series of publicly reported attacks against members of the Senate, think tanks and candidates running for public office.

Microsoft and Facebook in August revealed that they had found malicious disinformation campaigns linked to foreign adversaries like Russia and Iran. The disclosures made it clear that such influence campaigns aren't going away, even as tech companies step up their vigilance.

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats has also said that the warning signs of Russia launching cyberattacks against the U.S. are again "blinking red."

Tech giants and social media companies will be under enormous pressure ahead of the midterms to push back on foreign interference efforts on their platforms and services.

Encryption fight

The encryption debate is expected to fire up again this fall, with the Justice Department reportedly trying to force Facebook to break the encryption on its Messenger app so authorities can monitor phone calls of criminal suspects.

The clash between law enforcement officials and privacy advocates over encryption is not new and was highlighted after the deadly shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., in 2015, after which the FBI pushed Apple unsuccessfully to unlock a phone belonging to one of the suspects.

This latest case, however, is different. This time, the FBI is looking to intercept voice conversations of an alleged MS-13 gang member in real time, according to a report from Reuters.

Legal experts told Reuters this could have broad implications for other tech companies that provide similar encrypted services, like Signal and Facebook's other popular messaging service, WhatsApp.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation speculated that federal authorities are basing their argument for access on the 1968 Wiretap Act, a law that requires telephone companies to allow law enforcement to tap phones of suspects if they have a court order in hand.

Facebook, however, is reportedly arguing that providing such technical assistance on its encrypted apps to law enforcement may require it to rewrite the code of Messenger.

The fight could end up in court, putting the encryption debate back in the spotlight.

DHS cyber office

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has also sought to improve its own cybersecurity efforts, but a bill to rename a key team at the agency has stalled in the Senate after passing the House earlier this year.

The bill would give the DHS office, currently titled the National Protection and Programs Directorate, the more tailored name of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and would reorganize the office into a full-fledged agency.

The office has been at the forefront of efforts to protect U.S. elections from foreign interference, and DHS officials as well as others in Washington are frustrated that the bill has lost momentum.

"I think it's fair to say that there is some amount of frustration in the DHS team on the ability of the Senate to move important legislation to give DHS needed changes to its organizational structure in the cybersecurity space," a source close to the administration told The Hill earlier this month.

Even the White House has stepped into the fray, with Vice President Pence urging the Senate to pass the bill at an event late last month.

But time is quickly running out before the end of the 2018 fiscal year, and it's unclear if the legislation will be prioritized as the Senate tackles other challenges ahead of the midterms.

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