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U.S. Elections: Big Target for Another Data Breach

By Tom Skeen

It’s a fact – if you do anything online these days the information and the computer systems that you use could be the target of malicious outsiders. This goes for banking transactions, email messages, file exchanges with your Box or DropBox accounts, and, yes, the votes that you cast for your local mayor or even the President of the United States.

Truth Behind the DNC System Data Breach

It has been widely published, by various security experts, that Russia was most-likely behind the hack of the Democratic National Committee’s computer systems that ultimately led to thousands of email messages being publically leaked just before the party’s convention began in July. The DNC data breach occurred around the same time as data breaches of U.S. government systems at the State Department and the White House [1]. It’s quite obvious from these events alone that a malicious outsider is trying to create havoc or influence the U.S. elections and governmental structure.

With less than 100 days to the Presidential election – local, state and federal government officials must act now or risk continued outside influence and possibly months or years of negative impact and litigation.

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So What Needs to Happen?

Government officials must think about their security in layers – from the perimeter of the network to the data being stored at rest to securing all internal and external electronic communications.

Let’s start with securing the perimeter, in the use case of the election systems and data that are being controlled in an electronic manner. There is a host location for the election servers in addition to many voting locations where individuals cast their ballots.  The data from the ballots cast is stored locally until transmitted in batch to the host location.

In this situation, a hacker could attempt to intrude the network where the data is being stored locally at the voting location. Perimeter security is absolutely critical and when deployed properly can make it quite difficult for intruders to attempt a data breach. As a second layer of prevention, the data must also be stored in an encrypted manner. Not only will this increase protection from a malicious outsider in the event the perimeter is compromised, but will also protect against a malicious insider without authorized credentials.

Once the voters cast their ballots the data must be transferred to the host election systems so the data can be consolidated and the election results tallied. For this, it is highly recommended that the data be transferred using multiple layers of security.   First, the data must be encrypted using PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) with a digital signature and then the network session encrypted that the data is being transferred over using sFTP, FTPs. Then, multi-factor authentication must be enforced by the sender of the data to prevent access by unauthorized receivers. Finally, once the host site receives the data, very specific controls must be in place to protect the data and eliminate outside influence.

Government officials must immediately do a complete security assessment of their computer networks and the data that they are responsible for in an effort to prevent influence by malicious outsiders or potential disgruntled insiders. This includes identity and access management, security of email, perimeter of the network and data in motion and at rest at both the local voting site and at the host election site. The stakes are high and any type of illegal influence could be disastrous to the upcoming election results.  If government officials are unable to properly secure the data in an electronic form, they must go offline and process paper ballots.

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