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National Guard cyber experts working to protect Washington state’s election security

The Massachusetts National Guard arrived in Worcester to decommission the DCU Center as a field hospital on Wednesday. (Michael Bonner | [email protected]/TNS)

As the 2020 election approaches, the 194th Wing of Washington’s Air National Guard is preparing to safeguard the state’s election systems.

For the last three years, the 194th Wing has had a special relationship with the Washington Secretary of State’s office to protect Washington’s election system from cyber threats.

Federal law prohibits military personnel under federal control and funding from conducting operations at polling places. But units under state control can be used to set up polling stations, provide physical security and conduct cybersecurity missions.

The 194th Wing of the Washington Air National Guard is a special warfare, intel and cyber wing made up of about 450 airmen. About half of the 194th wing does close air support with the Army, the other half does intelligence missions and cyber operations.

During the 2020 election, the airmen and women will monitor the election system to make sure there is no “cyber mischief,” as Col. Ken Borchers says.

Col. Ken Borchers is the commander of the 194th wing. Borchers said the unit’s success comes down to the 200 airmen and women who bring special expertise to the group’s cybersecurity missions.

“I had a colleague who used to say Washington is ‘geographically blessed’ because a lot of these folks also work at places like Microsoft, Google and Amazon,” Borchers said. “So these men and women are able to bring their skills as cybersecurity experts to the National Guard.”

Borchers explained their election monitoring involves analyzing the way data flow through the election system, monitoring firewalls, and testing the systems defense protocols.

Washington’s National Guard has been especially busy this year. It’s been called in for wildfires, civil unrest and the fight against COVID-19. Borchers said some of the same airmen working on cybersecurity were working in food banks across the state on top of their election security work and civilian jobs.

The 194th works with the Secretary of State’s office in the week leading up to an election — its last mission was during the August primary election. It now is gearing up for the general election on Nov. 3.

Borchers said election security is less about fighting threats and more about testing vulnerabilities a potential threat might exploit.

“The Secretary of State’s office has been a willing partner and said, “Hey, bring your best hackers and do your worst,”” Borchers said. “They’re taking an avant-garde approach to cybersecurity in that they really want to test themselves to make sure the elections system is running as best as it can.”

Secretary of State Kim Wyman said her office has its own cybersecurity experts, but the National Guard’s team helps to test the work they do.

“They come in to do penetration testing, to see if our employees would fall for a phishing attempt and monitor the activity of our network,” Wyman said. “They look at our vulnerabilities and give us ways to prevent access.”

Wyman said threats to election security are unique because things are stacked in the hackers’ favor.

“All they have to do is get something right once, but we have to get it right 100% of the time,” said Wyman, a Republican. “Everything we do to counteract those threats is a positive step forward, but there is no finish line to this. It’s an ongoing battle.”

According to Borchers, that means everything comes down to the creativity of the Guard members working on the project. He said that unlike traditional warfare, they can’t write a guide on how to fight these threats because the landscape of cybersecurity is constantly changing.

“We evolve our tactics on a daily, sometimes hourly basis,” Borchers said. “It’s part of why the people involved are the key to our success, there’s no magic box or cool cyber jet fighter — it’s about the airmen’s ingenuity.”


© 2020 The News Tribune