Nov 9, 2020

Analysis | The Cybersecurity 202: Biden will get tougher on Russia and boost election security. Here's what to expect.


Joseph Marks

“There are members of the Trump administration that prioritized cybersecurity, but Trump never has – and that will be different with Biden,” said Chris Painter, who served as the State Department’s top cybersecurity official during the Obama administration and for the first few months of the Trump administration. Trump frequently misstated basic facts about cybersecurity and seldom mentioned the topic publicly.  

Here are five key cybersecurity priorities for the Biden administration.

1. Seeking more funding for election security – which Republicans could start seeing as politically beneficial. 

Democrats’ effort to deliver billions of dollars to make elections more secure against hacking and safer during the pandemic were stymied during the past four years by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other Republicans who seemed to fear sparking Trump’s ire. The president seemed to view discussions about election security as delegitimizing his unexpected 2016 victory over Hillary Clinton and later spread unfounded rumors about widespread mail voting fraud. 

Republicans agreed to deliver more than $1 billion for election security and safety during the Trump administration, but that was only about one-fourth of what Democrats sought. 

Trump leaving office could clear the way for a far bigger package to fund a shift to paper ballots in states and counties that still lack them, increased mail voting and more post-election audits to ensure votes were counted accurately. 

The political winds may be changing now: Republicans may also feel new pressure to invest in auditable paper trails and other measures to ensure voting integrity because of Trump’s unfounded claims of voting fraud, which he’s continued to make after the election. 

Trump, who hasn’t conceded the election, is claiming voting irregularities in numerous states where Biden is leading or has been declared the winner but so far hasn’t had much luck on the legal front.  

Either way, “I don’t think that’s an issue a Democratic administration could ignore,” Neil Jenkins, a former DHS official who worked on election security during the Obama and Trump administrations, told me. “Election security and infrastructure has been so high on the radar the last four years.”

Notably, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris was also a major booster of election security and a sponsor or co-sponsor of most of the major election security bills in the Senate. 

But Republicans are unlikely to budge in their opposition to Democratic efforts to mandate that states and counties that receive federal money for elections follow specific cybersecurity standards. That means the only chance of advancing Democrats’ boldest election security plans probably will depend on them winning January runoff elections for two Senate seats in Georgia that will determine which party controls the Senate. 

Democrats say mandates are important because hackers will attack the least-defended election infrastructure and a breach anywhere can drive down confidence about an election. But Republicans have said such standards amount to a federal takeover of elections. They also say mandates are largely unnecessary because election officials have generally followed expert advice about cybersecurity without being forced to. 

“If we have a Democratic president and House and Senate, I believe we’ll certainly see a major bill put forward on election security and there are certainly going to be minimum requirements and standards if states take advantage of that money,” Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), co-founder of the Congressional Cybersecurity Caucus, told me before the election. “It’s not going to be heavy-handed, but they’ll have to have paper ballots and audit trails and that sort of thing.”

2. Getting tougher on Russia. 

Biden warned during the campaign that Russia would face serious consequences if it interfered with election infrastructure – a big shift from Trump, who repeatedly wavered on whether Russia interfered in the 2016 election and seemed to take Putin’s word on the issue over the conclusion of his own intelligence agencies. 

With Russia, Trump hasn’t confronted them, so they’ve just steamrolled over us,” Jim Lewis, a cybersecurity expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told me. 

Under Biden, experts expect to see consistent public warnings from the White House that Russia needs to steer clear of hacking a whole range of critical U.S. sectors, including elections, financial services and energy companies. They’re also looking for the United States to impose consequences if Russia does attack those sectors, including sanctions, indictments and retaliatory cyberstrikes. 

“One of the major flaws in the Trump administration has been inconsistent messaging around Russia,” Painter said. “No matter what the government does to challenge an adversary, it will be torn apart if the leader is undercutting that message, and the adversary will be emboldened.”

Yet Biden has already gotten into some hot water with security experts by publicly blaming the Kremlin for helping orchestrate the release of unverified emails to the New York Post aimed at embarrassing him and his son Hunter. However, intelligence agencies have not concluded that Russia was behind the release. Biden based his claim largely on a letter from former national security officials who said the emails had the "hallmarks of a Russian disinformation campaign" but had no specific evidence of a plot – a standard that's too low, experts say.  

“Biden is holding himself to a higher standard than Trump. Then we should hold Biden to a higher standard as well,” Thomas Rid, professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University, told our colleagues after the presidential debate. “And that means acknowledging in this case that we just don’t have the evidence.”

3. Making a clear case against China. 

If there’s one issue where cybersecurity experts expect continuity between the Trump and Biden administrations, it’s China. 

The Biden administration probably will continue Trump policies banning the Chinese telecom Huawei from building U.S. 5G networks and barring other Chinese companies from industry sectors where they might be able to steal critical data or damage U.S. national security. 

“The general direction of China policy will remain the same,” Lewis told me. “There’s no space for any letting up.”

But Biden administration officials probably will try to make a clearer and more consistent argument about why Chinese technology poses cybersecurity concerns, which could help convince allies that are on the fence about imposing their own bans. 

Trump officials had mixed success convincing allies to ban Huawei from their 5G networks, partly because they were often undercut by the president, who signaled he might reverse the ban as part of a U.S.-China trade deal. 

4. Filling more top cybersecurity posts in government.  

Trump administration officials eliminated two of the most prominent cybersecurity posts in government — a White House czar who was responsible for coordinating cybersecurity issues across the government and a State Department coordinator who acted as the nation’s top cybersecurity diplomat. 

The State Department cybersecurity job was later integrated into the responsibilities of another official focused on global Internet governance. 

That’s likely to happen during a Biden administration, experts told me. 

There may also be a push to expand the term of the director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, which leads the government's domestic election security efforts, so it’s more insulated from a president’s political whims. Reps. John Katko (R-N.Y.) and Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) introduced a bill this year that would give the CISA director a five-year term.

5. More cybersecurity help for states. 

Another issue where Republicans and Democrats might be able to compromise is on delivering money to help state and local governments improve their cybersecurity protections.

That money could be essential to combating a wave of ransomware attacks that have hit state and local governments in recent years as well as hospitals and schools. Ransomware attacks seize and encrypt a victim’s computer files until the victim pays a ransom that can reach into the millions of dollars. 

The House passed a bipartisan bill in September that would have delivered $400 million in cybersecurity aid to state and local governments to help protect against such hacks, but it hasn’t made progress in the Senate. A similar effort might go further next year if lawmakers are looking for an easy bipartisan win. 

“Cybersecurity has fortunately managed to stay a largely bipartisan issue, and that helps,” Suzanne Spaulding, who led the Department of Homeland Security’s cybersecurity efforts during the Obama administration, told me. 

The keys

Republican claims of voting irregularities aren’t withstanding legal scrutiny. 

In Michigan, Republicans lost two lawsuits alleging impropriety in ballot counts because they were unable to provide evidence of wrongdoing. In one case the Trump campaign cited a sticky note from an unnamed poll worker alleging late-arriving ballots were being counted improperly. The judge dismissed the note as hearsay. 

In Arizona, the Trump campaign pushed a lawsuit based on an unfounded claim that votes went uncounted because voters were given Sharpie pens to fill out ballots. Secretary of State Katie Hobbs (D) accused the campaign of using the courts to delay the count. 

Similar scenarios have played out in Georgia, Nevada and Pennsylvania. The lawsuits have focused on smaller claims that would probably affect a small fraction of voters,  rather than allegations of widespread fraud that have blanketed Trump's Twitter page. 

Trump's allies also don't appear to be slowing down. Trump's personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani said the campaign would file a case in federal court in Pennsylvania as well as in other unspecified states.

“Many cases are going to be filed — some big, some small. This is going to be eventually a big case,” he said Saturday in Philadelphia.

Trump and allies continue to push disinformation after Twitter and Facebook confirm Biden's victory.

The Trump campaign's director of communications, Tim Murtaugh, tweeted a doctored photo of a 2000 Washington Times front page that was altered to make it look like the paper had run a headline announcing “President Gore” after that tight election.

The Washington Times tweeted that it contacted Murtaugh about the error.

Trump also continues to tweet unfounded claims alleging voter fraud

Twitter policies about shielding some of those claims from view and blocking retweeting of them has shifted since the election was called for Biden. 

Twitter did not put a gray box over a Trump tweet on Saturday that claimed without evidence that election observers weren't allowed into counting rooms, Tony Romm reported. Instead it added a label on the tweet, saying “This claim about election fraud is disputed.” The company also did not limit sharing of that tweet. 

Election officials ramped up security measures and police presence to deal with angry Trump supporters.

The surge of distrust was egged on by Trump's surrogates and online misinformation. Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel spread false claims that 2,000 Michigan ballots that included votes for Republican were recorded as Democratic votes. Although the actual issue was a technical glitch that was immediately fixed, McDaniel's claims quickly spread across the Internet. 

One Fulton County, Ga., poll worker had his personal information posted online after a viral video accused him of throwing away a ballot. 

Even with Biden declared the winner, election officials are facing a lengthy process to audit and verify vote totals.

CISA Senior Cybersecurity Adviser Matthew Masterson:

Chat room

Robert M. Lee, a former NSA official who leads the cybersecurity firm Dragos, called for the incoming Democratic administration to keep CISA's top leadership in place. 

A response from the Biden campaign’s senior cybersecurity officer Jackie Singh:

Global cyberspace

The United Kingdom’s top spy agency is shutting down down propaganda about coronavirus vaccines.

GCHQ is using a hacking toolkit developed to limit the spread of propaganda from the Islamic State, the U.K.’s Sunday Times reports

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