U.S. election day came and went without a sniff of a cyber attack -- but officials remain wary of a post-election barrage from foreign operatives.
With the ghost of the 2016 Presidential campaign lingering, the lack of cyber excitement this time around appeared to calm widespread concerns, if only for a moment, that the election would again be convulsed by outsiders.
There was even an official announcement from Christopher Krebs, the director of the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), that the nation’s election infrastructure came through the day unscathed. “Over the last four years, has been a part of a whole-of-nation effort to ensure American voters decide American elections,” he said. “Importantly, after millions of Americans voted, we have no evidence any foreign adversary was capable of preventing Americans from voting or changing vote tallies.”
Krebs praised the “hard work of state and local election officials and private sector partners” to improve election security and reaffirmed the federal government’s commitment to “securing systems and pushing back against malicious actors seeking to disrupt our process and interfere in our election.”
U.S. Cybersecurity: Defenders Remain On Alert
With the accolades came some level-headed caution. A senior CISA official told The Hill that the threat of disinformation and other foreign interference efforts “extends well into the next month or two. There is no spiking the football here. We are acutely focused on the mission at hand. We are aggressively looking for any activity that could interfere with the election, and that is going to be our mission for the foreseeable future.”
Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), the ranking member on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told The Hill that lessons had been learned from 2016. “That has included lots of coordination and sharing, including with private industry and social media companies, helping states and localities harden their systems, and focused intel collection to detect threats so they could be countered,” he said. Warner cautioned that “we’re almost certain to discover something we missed in the coming weeks, but at the moment it looks like these preparations were fairly effective in defending our infrastructure.”
Cyber defenders must build on the foundation that has been set, Benjamin Hovland, who chairs the Election Assistance Commission, told The Hill. “I think while it’s fantastic that yesterday was quiet, that tells you that the work is paying off,” he said. "But we know the nature of the threats in the cybersecurity landscape don’t go away, and you don’t get to say, ‘Oh, we’re good.’ You see the commitment and the effort and that has to continue."
U.S. Cybersecurity: Digital, Virtual War Continues
Clearly, CISA recognizes that cybersecurity protection is a war without end no matter the landscape. Last week, the agency put into service an election day virtual war room to alert state and local voting officials of cyber intrusion attempts by foreign adversaries. Employees located at the agency’s 10 regional offices were on alert to dispatch to polling places or election headquarters to investigate any suspicious hacking activity.
That operation followed an earlier warning from U.S. Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe that Iran and Russia have both tried to undermine Americans’ confidence in the integrity of the vote and spread disinformation to mislead the electorate.
And, in September, Microsoft outed three prolific hacking crews from China, Iran and Russia for allegedly executing hundreds of cyber assaults on organizations and staffers associated with the election campaigns of President Trump and President-Elect Joe Biden.