Former government officials call for democracies to band together at election security forum hosted by Auburn University

Published: September 27, 2019
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As authoritarian regimes escalate their cyberattacks against democratic nations, democracies must work together to shore up their defenses and secure elections going forward, former government officials said Thursday at a forum on election security.

The forum, hosted by Auburn University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security in Washington, D.C., featured a dialogue between former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves and former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff on the challenges of securing elections and lessons learned from previous cyberattacks.

As president of Estonia, Ilves led the country through a series of crippling Russian cyberattacks in 2007. Today, the National Cyber Security Index ranks Estonia as one of the most secure nations in cyberspace.

Ilves challenged governments to break down silos within their organizational structures and ensure integration of defense, cyber and other critical areas. He also encouraged “genuine interaction” among democratic nations to share information about cyber threats from authoritarian governments such as Russia, China and Iran.

“Democracies need to band together because they are the ones under threat,” Ilves said. “Distance no longer matters. It’s not about fighter range. It’s about whether you’re a democracy with fundamental rights and freedoms that are anathema to the enemies of an open society.”

Chertoff, who served as the second secretary of the Department of Homeland Security from 2005-09, said governments can best safeguard elections by focusing on four areas:

  • Securing voting infrastructure and voter databases

  • Putting in place better cybersecurity for political campaigns

  • Combatting disinformation campaigns by foreign governments

  • Implementing backup plans in case critical infrastructure, such as transit or the electric grid, is hacked on election day

Ilves said election security goes far beyond securing the ballot box, but also includes locking down voting lists and ensuring the accurate transmittal of election results.

“If you want to disrupt an election, there are so many vulnerable points, and we need to think about all of them,” Ilves said.

Chertoff echoed Ilves’ comments on the growing threat of autocratic and theocratic governments on democratic elections.

“We shouldn’t assume that the prevailing outcome for democracy is a foregone conclusion,” Chertoff said. “It’s a jump ball, and frankly right now, I think the ball is up in the air in a lot of ways.”

The dialogue between Chertoff and Ilves was followed by a panel of international experts on policy and operations from the public and private sectors. The discussion centered on the cyber challenges from the 2016 election, progress made since then and ongoing challenges.

“There has been tremendous progress since 2016 in improving the security of our elections infrastructure. There is absolutely no doubt about it,” said John Gilligan, president and CEO of the Center for Internet Security. “But it’s not with zero risk … there will always be risks. But I think the American public should be assured that our systems are much more secure today than they were three years ago.”

However, the patchwork of U.S. electoral systems represents one such risk because it is “election technology wonderland,” said Robert Krimmer, professor of e-Governance at Tallinn University of Technology and former senior advisor on new voting technologies for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.

Krimmer said that many recommendations to upgrade U.S. election systems and governance have been ignored.

“As long as there is no willingness to really address this governance issue that exists with U.S. elections, nothing will change,” Krimmer said. “Money won’t make a difference if the root cause is not being treated.”

Other panelists included Kathy Boockvar, acting secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania; Liisa Past, chief national cyber risk officer for the Estonian government; Joseph Lorenzo Hall, chief technologist for the Center for Democracy and Technology; and Adm. Pete Neffenger, board chairman at Smartmatic.

The forum was moderated by Frank Cilluffo, director of Auburn University’s McCrary Institute for Cyber and Critical Infrastructure Security in Auburn and the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security in Washington, D.C., and Brian de Vallance, senior fellow at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security. The forum was held in partnership with the Center for Internet Security and the Embassy of Estonia.

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