Strong passwords, trustworthy media and careful communications planning are key to protecting South Carolina’s elections from cybersecurity attacks, experts said in a workshop on April 30.
More than 200 people throughout South Carolina tuned in to the event hosted by the University of South Carolina College of Arts and Sciences. They heard from some state leaders working at the forefront of politics and cybersecurity, as well speakers from the University of Southern California Election Cybersecurity Initiative, which is sponsoring one workshop in every state. South Carolina’s workshop broke the initiative’s attendance record.
Now, more than ever, we must include cybersecurity in our future planning decisions. ... It is increasingly important that we work together to tackle the issue.
― Bob Caslen, University of South Carolina President
The organizers’ goal was to ensure people know how to navigate around digital threats that seek to undermine democracy.
“The election is all about the electorate being able to express their choices," Clifford Neuman, an engineering professor at the University of Southern California, said. “The voters are at risk of not having their votes counted, not having their true intent seen in the outcome of the election. Democracy is our candidate in this particular initiative.”
Although cybersecurity can be associated with attempts to hack the machines that record or tally votes, Neuman explained that there are numerous other vulnerabilities. Attackers also could target political campaign computers, news media websites and social media accounts to steal data or spread false information.
For example, he said, fake or hacked social media accounts could be used to convince voters that an election date or location has changed, causing some citizens to miss voting. Even if such attempts do not change the outcome of an election, they can cast doubt on the electoral process that weakens people’s trust in the outcome.
Polarization weakens us even more than we want to admit. ... That’s why they target these elections. That’s why they try to make Americans turn against each other.
― Bruce Smalley, South Carolina Critical Infrastructure Cybersecurity Program
The 2020 elections could face more challenges because of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Adam Clayton Powell, director of the USC Election Cybersecurity Initiative. “We’re seeing an unprecedented level of changes in dates, changes in the way we vote, changes in the place we vote,” he said. “Under the best of circumstances there is an opportunity for misinformation, and even worse, an opportunity for adversaries to spread confusion about our elections and about democracy itself.”
The solutions involve educating campaign staff, election officials and the public about the issues and common steps for cybersafety, including strong passwords and awareness of phishing schemes, he said.
Powell also said that election and campaign officials should “go local,” using state and local government and media to educate citizens about election procedures and how any changes would be announced.
Experts within the state offered their perspectives. South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson said law enforcement agencies need to be proactive about cybersecurity threats. “When you’re fighting a war, you’re always trying to anticipate your enemy,” he said.
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As voters are plagued with concerns about COVID-19, government leaders need to seek bipartisan solutions, Wilson said. “Everyone wants secure elections. Everybody wants to feel that their vote counts," he said. “That is the next big question: How do we protect the general public to go and vote during the epidemic while at the same time not create a situation where you violate election integrity?
“There’s a bipartisan approach to this. I take both sides at face value when they say they want to do the right thing.”
Scott Farmer, campaign manager for U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, said the campaign is taking a serious approach to cybersecurity this year. It partnered with the nonprofit Defending Digital Campaigns to discover strategies for staying secure. This has become even more important over the past several weeks as the campaign has moved to an all-digital format, he said.
“We have signed up for a number of their services and we’re doing things that we’ve never done before,” he said. “We’re doing a lot of things behind the scenes.”
Phil Noble, a political strategist with decades of experience, said the attacks are looking beyond any one election. “They’re trying to use technology to undermine elections simply to undermine global confidence in democracy," he said. “The enemies of democracy are totalitarian systems. These are systems that are attacking not us as a country, but also us as a democracy, as a system of government.”
Bruce Smalley, executive director of the South Carolina Critical Infrastructure Cybersecurity Program, agreed.
“Polarization weakens us even more than we want to admit,” Smalley said. "But America’s weakness benefits Russia, North Korea and our enemies. That’s why they target these elections. That’s why they try to make Americans turn against each other.”
That is the next big question: How do we protect the general public to go and vote during the epidemic while at the same time not ... violate election integrity?
― Alan Wilson, South Carolina Attorney General
The April 30 workshop was one piece of the state’s conversation about cybersecurity. University of South Carolina President Bob Caslen pointed out that a statewide group would be working on developing a statewide cybersecurity plan. Cybersecurity remains an important focus for the University of South Carolina and the College of Arts and Sciences, and another statewide workshop on election cybersecurity is in the plans for the fall.
“Now, more than ever, we must include cybersecurity in our future planning decisions,” Caslen said. “Our work, our schools, and our lives have moved to a virtual platform. As we saw in 2016, election security is vital, and as we prepare for another national election this fall, it is increasingly important that we work together to tackle the issue.”