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Jefferson County Elections Supervisor Marty Bishop was unable to attend the recent four-day convention of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections in South Florida, where the topic of cybersecurity was a high priority.
“It's the first I've missed in years,” Bishop said last week.
Even so, Bishop said he was well aware of the cybersecurity issue, which reportedly dominated the annual conference, held on March 21-24 at the Harbor Beach Marriott Hotel in Ft. Lauderdale.
The cybersecurity concern centers on the potential for outside interference in the coming August primary and November general elections. It's a potential that has reportedly put elections administrators across the state “on high alert”, prompting many to tighten controls, conduct security reviews and, in some cases, upgrade their software and equipment.
“State and local elected officials are taking the potential threat of cyber activity very, very seriously, and we are taking the critical steps to ensure that the security of our elections (is) safe,” Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner is quoting saying at the conference.
The state, in fact, has reportedly appropriated $1.9 million for a network monitoring security system that identifies and shares information about potential threats and provides around-the-clock monitoring. The Division of Elections is also reportedly hiring five cybersecurity specialists. At the same time, it's reported that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is providing risk assessments for county elections offices, probing for potential vulnerabilities.
Bishop notes that Jefferson County's system is relatively secure. Even so, he mentioned that Florida is supposed to get something like $19 million from the federal government for the hardening of its elections systems in preparation for the midterm elections, of which money Jefferson County hopes to get some. He said the funding would be used for acquisition of what is called an “Albert sensor”, a device that provides automated threat alerts on both traditional and advanced networks.
“It's a sensor installed on our equipment that would pick up foreign internet service providers (ISP),” is the way Bishop explained it. “If it suspects a foreign ISP, we report it to Homeland Security and others of the cyber security agencies.”
Albert reportedly came about as a result of a Homeland Security project dubbed Einstein, which focused on the detection and blocking of cyber-attacks within federal agencies. Since the name Einstein was already taken when a similar capability was developed for state and local governments, it was named Albert.
Bishop said he is assuming that the Albert sensor will be available sometime this summer, as the federal plan calls for deployment of the device to the 50 states by the 2018 midterm election.
The Albert sensor, however, may better serve the state's more populous counties, which are more vulnerable to cyber attacks. Jefferson County, in fact, may have an advantage in being small.
“The system that we use is not on the internet,” Bishop said, explaining that it's thereby not susceptible to electronic intrusions, are the larger counties' more sophisticated systems.
“There, someone can hack into their systems and cause all kinds of turmoil on election day by changing addresses, party affiliations and such,” Bishop said. “Here, we print a countywide registration list that every precinct has a copy of. If a name's not on a precinct's registration list, you can look it up on the countywide registration list to see if the person is approved to vote.”
Likewise, he said, when it comes to the actual voting, tabulation of the ballots and the like, none of it is done online in Jefferson County.
“So we're relatively secure,” Bishop said, referring to cyber attacks.
Whereas the larger counties, he continued, use the EViD, which is described as a network of electronic devices at the voting sites that communicate with each other and with the county’s voter registration system. The EViD stations allow the poll workers to quickly check in voters during early voting and on election day, eliminating the need for printed poll books. But it also makes the system potentially vulnerable to a data breaches.
One last thing on the coming election. Bishop said it's going to be an extremely complicated ballot, given the number of local, state and national races and 13 amendments that have to be decided.