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Minnesota Guard’s coders, hackers may help shore up election defenses

Cyber Intelligence (US Army/Released)

Minnesota election officials working to beef up the state’s cyber defenses against hackers now want to call in the National Guard.

In an effort to protect the 2020 election just months before early primary voting starts, Secretary of State Steve Simon said he wants to formalize a long-term agreement to work with a new “cyber protection team” developed by the Minnesota National Guard ahead of a workshop planned this week in St. Paul as part of a national “policy academy” on election security.

The gathering of federal and state officials comes as Congress deepens its impeachment inquiry over a whistleblower allegation that President Donald Trump solicited Ukrainian help in undermining former Vice President Joe Biden, one of his top Democratic challengers in 2020. But a more pressing concern for local and state election officials is the prospect of foreign hacking and social media disinformation.

Simon and other state election officials have warned that more foreign sources are likely to try to penetrate states’ election systems than in 2016, adding that there are already signs of widespread online disinformation campaigns underway.

“This is a security issue,” Simon said. “It isn’t just about bullets or boots on the ground, it’s about this cyber realm and the fact that adversaries try to expose or exploit weaknesses in the cyber world just as they would in other areas as well.”

Safeguarding Minnesota’s election integrity in 2020 will involve the largest-ever collection of state agencies and officials, including the pending partnership with the National Guard.

“Realistically, everybody in that entire chain has skin in the game to make sure that there’s public confidence in our election process and system,” said Lt. Col. Daniel Cunningham, who leads the Minnesota National Guard’s 177th Cyber Protection Team.

Minnesota is just one of four Army National Guard states with fully staffed cyber protection teams. The team’s first foray in election security came in 2018 when it worked with the Minnesota Department of IT Services to probe for vulnerabilities. Now, Simon’s office is pitching a collaboration that could include “table top” exercises to plan for 2020, including training for county and local election administrators who are on the front lines.

West Virginia’s secretary of state became the first to strike a partnership with its National Guard to examine election security in 2017, when it tapped a computer expert with a top-secret security clearance to split time working on the state’s cyberdefenses while also monitoring threats at a law enforcement fusion center where state, local and federal officials collaborate to counter public safety threats.

“We were trying to figure out how best to use our state resources as opposed to the federal government, and that pointed us to the National Guard,” said West Virginia Secretary of State Andrew “Mac” Warner. “I just feel much more secure knowing that there is a human asset watching.”

Cunningham said the 2016 Russian targeting of election systems in all 54 states and territories spurred his team to huddle with the Minnesota Department of IT Services and Simon’s office to assess the strength of the state’s technology networks.

Now, with early voting set for January in the 2020 presidential primary, the same branch deployed by governors to help respond to natural disasters may soon send out a group of coders and hackers to help Minnesota’s election defenses. Cunningham said that could involve going “threat hunting” for possible sources of misinformation and alerting Simon’s office or political caucuses so that they can inform the public.

“Nobody has gotten worse at this activity than they were four years ago — everybody’s gotten better,” Cunningham said of foreign and nonstate figures’ meddling potential.

Aaron Call, chief information security officer for the Minnesota Department of IT Services, said that more “resources, people and teams are at this table on this issue than have been in the past.” Like his state government counterparts, Call is concerned about misinformation campaigns in the coming weeks and months that could include rumors about candidates or about the voting process itself.

“Election security encompasses more than simply safeguarding the integrity of the technology operating our elections system,” Call said.

Gov. Tim Walz will be at this week’s workshop at the Capitol, designed to develop a statewide response plan for election security. The policy academy is organized by the National Governors Association and runs through the end of the year.

“Secure elections are the foundation of our democracy,” Walz said in a statement. “It is our responsibility as public servants to understand the security threats we face in an increasingly sophisticated digital world, collaborate across every level of government, and invest in preserving our democracy.”

There is already evidence of ongoing misinformation campaigns tied to foreign bot networks, and the FBI has reportedly warned that conspiracy theories now present a domestic security threat.

A U.S. attorney whose Virginia office investigated 2018 midterm election interference warned recently of similar efforts by Russians to disrupt the upcoming presidential race. Troves of Iranian social media accounts have been taken down after being found to have impersonated journalists and politicians. And recently Facebook shuttered a Ukraine-based page dubbed “I Love America,” which had amassed 1.1 million followers after recycling memes first created by the same Russian Internet Research Agency that set up phony pro-Trump Facebook pages before the 2016 election.

This month, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a new round of funding for election security, but Democrats have criticized the $250 million appropriation as insufficient and continue to call for new legislation mandating the use of paper ballots — Minnesota does this already — and postelection auditing.

Minnesota U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democratic presidential contender, also wants to see the Office of Director of National Intelligence create a new “Malign Influence Response Center” that would target election interference much the same way that the office counters terrorism.

“We know that foreign governments and their agents have executed extensive and sophisticated influence campaigns that are designed to sow division, spread disinformation and mislead the American people. We need a collaborative, comprehensive approach to protecting our democracy from information warfare,” Klobuchar said.

Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Policy Institute and a longtime Democratic strategist, views the issue as “much bigger than politics” and more akin to a public health crisis that will require efforts to boost awareness among an increasingly web-connected population.

“I view this as sort of a long-term, no-silver-bullet kind of challenge,” Rosenberg said.

Already, a bot network has spread claims that presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke was supported by the perpetrator of the recent Odessa, Texas, mass shooting, and two American white nationalists spread fake rumors that another candidate, Pete Buttigieg, committed sexual assault.

“We’re still not equipped now to deal with what happened in 2016, and we’re certainly not equipped to deal with what is going to happen in 2020,” Rosenberg said.


© 2019 the Star Tribune