Analysis | The Cybersecurity 202: There’s a new cross-country effort to train election and campaign pros on digital security

By Joseph Marks

A woman votes in Sandy Springs, Ga. (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)
A team from the University of Southern California has embarked on a 50-state tour to give cybersecurity training to poll workers and state and local campaign staffers who will be the last line of defense against Russian hacking in 2020.
The group, called the Election Cybersecurity Initiative, views itself as a bottom-up, grass-roots counterpart to national-level election security efforts led by the Department of Homeland Security in the wake of Russia’s election interference in 2016.
It's hoping to advise local election officials, Election Day volunteers, ground-level campaign door-knockers and even interns in both political parties who national officials are unlikely to reach. The group also wants to build a network of cybersecurity experts at universities across the nation who can help secure local races and polling sites.
“There are incredible grass-roots resources and folks who are highly educated,” Justin Griffin, the group’s managing director, told me. “We’re really going to the states to touch those folks who could never take the time or have the budget to come to Washington for a session like this.”
The cross-country effort, which launched in Maryland this week, is yet another example of how the threat of hacking and disinformation is affecting every part of the elections and campaign process. The group, which is funded with a grant from Google, is modeling itself after an election campaign and using the tagline: “Our candidate is democracy.”
Along with protecting against hacking and disinformation, the group is also focusing on crisis communications — basically how campaigns should respond if they’re targeted with an online disinformation campaign or if hackers post campaign emails online to embarrass a candidate as Russian hackers did to Hillary Clinton in 2016.
“Campaigns prepare for the worst-case scenario from a [bad] press perspective on a daily basis, but they don’t prepare for the worst-case scenario of a cyberattack,” said Griffin, who formerly worked as a political director for the Massachusetts Republican Party.
One big goal is to tailor training sessions for each state and fill them with local experts.
Tuesday’s session in Maryland, for example, was held at a research facility in the Washington suburbs associated with U.S. Cyber Command and relied heavily on expert speakers from there and the National Security Agency as well as from cybersecurity programs at University of Maryland at Baltimore County and Morgan State University in Baltimore.
The next program, scheduled for Feb. 10 in the Ohio state capitol building in Columbus, will focus more on the needs of political campaigns, the group's executive director Adam Clayton Powell III told me.
The group plans to hold five to six events per month until Election Day, drawing experts from state universities, National Guard components and regional DHS offices and elsewhere. They’re planning at least one event in every state and two or more in larger states including California, Texas and Florida.
“We are there to share best practices, to bring some resources to bear and also to introduce people…We’re creating a national community,” Powell said.
The group isn’t saying how much funding Google gave it but said it will last only through the 2020 election. After that, the group is hoping to find new funders who can allow it to keep doing trainings across the country into the next election cycle.
“We've been approached by some major prospective funders saying we want to come talk to you after you've done 10 or 20 states and talk about 2021 and 2022,” Powell said.


Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) speaks during a campaign event on Sunday in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Matt Rourke/AP)
PINGED: Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren pledged to reinstate the White House cybersecurity coordinator position that President Trump eliminated in 2018, a move that puts her in line with cybersecurity hawks in Congress. 
She called the position critical to defenses against disinformation and cybersecurity threats. 
The call came as part of a plan Warren released yesterday outlining how she'd crack down as president on disinformation aimed at duping voters. Warren would push for civil and criminal penalties against social media users who intentionally spread disinformation about where and when to vote behavior that most tech platforms already forbid. She also said she would consider sanctions against countries that engage in election interference through disinformation.
Disinformation erodes our democracy, and Democrats must have a plan to address it, the senator from Massachusetts wrote. The stakes of this election are too high — we need to fight the spread of false information that disempowers voters and undermines democracy,”

A DJI drone. (Dave Zajac/Record-Journal/AP)
PATCHED: The Interior Department ordered the grounding of all non-emergency drones to assess whether the department's Chinese-made unmanned aircraft are too vulnerable to spying by Beijing, Shannon Vavra at Cyberscoop reports
The order doesn't mention China by name, but it formalizes and expands the department's decision to ground nearly 800 Chinese-made drones in the fall. The military has already largely banned Chinese-made drones, and a bipartisan group of lawmakers has pushed for legislation that would bar all federal agencies from buying them.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security first raised warning flags about the issue in 2017 when it accused Chinese drone manufacturer DJI of vying for government contracts to exploit U.S. data.
DJI has denied those claims and called yesterday's order “politically motivated.”

Three European Union flags fly outside the Berlaymont building, headquarters of the European Commission in Brussels. Photographer: Geert Vanden Wijngaert/Bloomberg
PWNED: The European Union declined to recommend that any of its members ban Huawei from their next-generation 5G telecom networks, dealing yet another blow to the United States’s efforts to persuade foreign allies that the Chinese telecom giant creates an outsize risk of spying. 
The decision comes just one day after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that the U.K. would allow Huawei to build some portions of its 5G network.
The E.U. advised members to limit “high-risk” vendors but did not single out any companies.
The decision doesn't bar E.U. member states from implementing their own bans. A German newspaper reported yesterday that the German government, which is still weighing a ban, had received intelligence from U.S. officials allegedly providing evidence of Huawei's spying. Huawei denied the claims, Reuters reports.


The House Committee on Homeland Security passed a bill yesterday that would grant DHS's cybersecurity division legal authority to subpoena information from Internet service providers about energy and financial firms and other critical infrastructure providers that are vulnerable to cyberattacks. The subpoenas would only give DHS basic information such as the company's name, address and telephone number. The bill is a major legislative priority for DHS.
—A newly leaked internal report revealed that skilled hackers compromised dozens of servers at the United Nations, including at an office that collects sensitive data about human rights abuses, Jamey Keaten and Frank Bajak at the Associated Press report. The hackers' identities and how much they stole remains unclear, but multiple cybersecurity experts say the attack resembles state-sponsored espionage.
— More cybersecurity news from the public sector:

The U.S. Census Bureau’s decennial count is raising concerns that its new digital systems are vulnerable to attacks or malfunctions that could unfairly rejigger congressional seats or shuffle federal resources.
Bloomberg Government

Republicans on the House Administration Committee on Wednesday introduced legislation that would seek to update a long-standing federal election law and secure voter registration databases from foreign hacking attempts.
The Hill

Chris Murphy urges FBI and DNI to look into whether message from Saudi prince triggered hacking of Amazon founder’s phone
The Guardian


--Two of the nation's most advanced cybersecurity organizations are planning to team up on sharing digital threat intelligence and responding to hacks, the groups announced this morning. The Cyber Threat Alliance, and the Financial Services Information Sharing and Analysis Center will also work together on cybersecurity training and war games.
CTA is a coalition of top technology and cybersecurity companies and the FS-ISAC works as a conduit to share threat intelligence between the government and the financial sector.
— More cybersecurity news from the private sector:

Twitter is giving users the ability to flag tweets that they believe contain misleading information about how to vote in this year’s U.S. presidential election, underscoring efforts to show it is trying to safeguard the process.
Wall Street Journal

Security researchers say Apple’s secretive stance on bugs may prove to be an Achilles’ heel.
Reed Albergotti, Craig Timberg and Jay Greene

Marketing giant LiveRamp has privileged access to advertising accounts on the social network. Hackers took notice.


— Cybersecurity news from abroad:

Israel’s energy infrastructure has had to defend itself against several serious cyber attacks, the most recent only a few months ago, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said on Wednesday.


  • The National Association of Secretaries of State convention will take place Thursday through Sunday in Washington.