Report details new cyber threats to elections from COVID-19


Election officials face a wide range of new cybersecurity threats stemming from voting changes spurred by the coronavirus pandemic, according to a report released Friday.

The report, compiled by New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, lays out threats such as attempts to target election officials working on unsecured networks at home, recovering from voter registration system outages and securing online ballot request systems.

“Voters are already placing increased demands on online registration systems and mail ballot options,” the authors wrote in the report. “At the same time, the risk of cyberattacks from foreign state and nonstate actors alike remains.”

Lawrence Norden, director of the Brennan Center’s Election Reform Program and a co-author of the report, told The Hill that election officials were already faced with cybersecurity threats, but they’re now also facing COVID-19 challenges.

“Now that we are past the primaries in a lot of states, there is time to return our attention again to cybersecurity, and obviously the threat hasn’t gone away just because we are dealing with COVID-19 in the United States,” Norden said.

He pointed to the sharp increase in mail-in voting to help avoid the spread of COVID-19 at the polls, and the new concerns around keeping poll workers safe, as raising unexpected security concerns.

“I am concerned that making big changes in a presidential election year is really not something you want to do,” Norden said. “We don’t have a choice, it’s a concern of just technical failures and that these new systems might represent appealing targets to foreign adversaries.”

Former special counsel Robert Mueller, along with U.S. intelligence officials and the Senate Intelligence Committee, have concluded that Russian actors targeted election infrastructure in all 50 states during the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, and successfully accessed systems in at least two states. There is no evidence any votes were changed.

The Brennan Center has been among the most vocal organizations pushing Congress to send states funding to allow elections to move forward during the COVID-19 outbreak.

With the upgrades comes funding challenges, as states and localities face budget shortfalls due to COVID-19 interruptions. The Brennan Center estimates $4 billion will need to be appropriated to make necessary changes.

Congress included $400 million for elections in the $2.2 trillion stimulus package signed into law on March 27, and Democrats included $3.6 billion for elections in a new stimulus package the House passed last month. Republicans have largely resisted backing that amount, pointing to concerns around mail-in voting increasing voter fraud and federalizing elections.

Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, Congress separately sent states $425 million as part of the 2020 appropriations package for election security.

Funds have now been made available by the Election Assistance Commission to help address some challenges from COVID-19, an issue compounding election security concerns.

Norden said these funds were vital to ensure cybersecurity threats did not disrupt elections this year.

“There is no question that what Congress can do, and really has to do very soon, is provide more money to states and localities so they can invest in election security over the next few months,” Norden said. “We can’t forget that we need to run our elections, ensure they are secure and fair and that people can have faith in them.”

Tags Coronavirus COVID-19 cyber threats cybersecurity Election Security mail-in ballots Pandemic Robert Mueller Russia vote-by-mail

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