The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Cybersecurity 202: Experts push Biden to establish presidential commission to boost trust in elections

with Aaron Schaffer

After a volatile election cycle marred by unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud, a group of experts is recommending that President Biden form a commission to boost Americans' confidence in elections and to propose ways to increase security by 2022.

The Alliance for Securing Democracy and Center for Democracy and Technology, in a new report first shared with The Cybersecurity 202, wants Biden to form such a commission by executive order in his first term. 

They envision a six-month period for the commission to hear from a variety of stakeholders, including local election officials and cybersecurity experts, and recommend ways to improve U.S. election administration and faith in the results. 

“There's a serious crisis of trust in American democracy right now and it's going to take time to study these problems,” says report co-author William Adler, senior technologist in elections and democracy at the tech group Center for Democracy and Technology. 

The commission would take a close look at how the pandemic has changed voting in America.

Voters shattered records for early voting in 2020, largely due to the significant expansion of mail-in voting spurred by the coronavirus pandemic. An election commission could be key to figuring out what elements of the expansion election officials should keep and build on for 2022, says co-author David Levine, elections integrity fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a bipartisan initiative housed within The German Marshall Fund of the United States. 

An important part of that process would be examining how an increase in early voting changes the cybersecurity landscape for elections, Adler says.

“Cybersecurity is not an endpoint. There's a constant need to reevaluate the landscape and reevaluate the threats,” Adler says. “You need to always stay multiple steps ahead of your adversary. So it's a constant discussion that we need to be having, especially given the damage that an actual successful attack could have.” 

The Biden administration has already called for a full intelligence assessment of Russia's alleged interference with the 2020 election – and is monitoring the ongoing threats from domestic terrorists spurred by false claims of election fraud. 

Biden already has a blueprint from the Obama administration.

The recommendations for the commission build off a similar presidential commission established by President Barack Obama in 2013 that issued several recommendations to improve voting access and voting technology. Obama established his presidential commission on election administration by executive order in March of his first year in office.

Experts hope Biden will follow a similar timeline. One of the things that we recognize is that if we are to have a comprehensive report that takes steps toward restoring trust in democracy at this critical juncture, particularly for the midterm elections, time is of the essence, Levine says.

Biden faces partisan hurdles.

Former president Donald Trump's persistent claims that election fraud cost him the election, despite no evidence to support this, accelerated distrust of election systems by some Republicans. Even before then, Republican leadership in Congress consistently blocked election security legislation leading up to the 2020 election. 

A Biden commission would have to bridge that trust gap. One of the things that made the [Obama commission] successful was that they found a lot of fertile middle ground, Levine says.

Levine and Adler say one area where Republicans and Democrats could find consensus is a focus on elevating trusted sources of election information to combat domestic and foreign misinformation.

Democrats have already started introducing election-related legislation and have more bills in the works. 

As new chair of the rules committee, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) has vowed to make voting security and access "key priorities," she told The Hill

"I'm hopeful that there are some good election reforms that may gain more traction in the next Congress, Levine says. 

But even without congressional involvement, the commission could make important improvements, he says. There's a lot that Congress can do, but there's also plenty that the states and local officials can do as well," Adler says.

The keys

Top diplomat weighs sanctions against Russia over cyberattack, other actions.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell that he is reviewing sanctions as a possible response to the cyberattack. 

The United States “will take steps to stand up for our interests and stand against Russian aggressive actions,” Blinken said. 

The White House has vowed to “hold Russia to account for its reckless and adversarial actions.”

U.S. intelligence office warns that China wants to steal your DNA.

The new warning from the National Counterintelligence and Security Center comes in response to growing concerns about Chinese-made coronavirus testing kits. Last week, Republican lawmakers sent a letter warning of the kits’ risks.

“China’s access to U.S. health-care and genomic data poses serious privacy and national security risks to the U.S.,” the intelligence report reads. “Through its cyber intrusions in recent years, the PRC has already obtained the Personal Identifying Information (PII) of much of the U.S. population.”

As NBC News’s Kevin Collier notes, it also comes several years after the Chinese cyberattack on U.S. insurance company Anthem:

Senators announce legislation to prevent surveillance of domestic violence, stalking victims.

The legislation, which was introduced last week, would allow victims to get out of shared phone plans, Cyberscoop’s Shannon Vavra reports. The new bill, which was introduced by Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of four senators, would allow abuse victims to leave phone plans without penalties and require the FCC to make rules prohibiting calls and texts to hotlines from appearing on call logs. 

The bill comes as domestic abuse rises amid the coronavirus pandemic. Academics and activists have for years raised concerns about the surveillance aspects of phone plans, which could allow abusers to stalk and harass their victims.

National security watch

A cyber veteran is named FBI deputy director.

Paul M. Abbate is the FBI’s new deputy director. Abbate, who most recently served as the FBI’s associate deputy director, previously held roles including executive assistant director of the bureau’s criminal, cyber, response and services branch, where he oversaw all of its cyber investigations.

Daybook

  • The Senate is set to vote on confirming Alejandro Mayorkas, President Biden’s pick to lead the Department of Homeland Security, at 2:30 p.m. today.
  • The House energy and commerce committee holds a hearing on fighting fraud and scams amid the coronavirus pandemic Thursday at noon.
  • Chris DeRusha, President Biden’s new federal chief information security officer, speaks at the “Identity, Authentication, and the Road Ahead” virtual conference, which is being held on Thursday and Friday. 
  • Anne Neuberger, the deputy national security adviser for cyber and emerging technology, speaks at a meeting of the National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee on Feb. 10 at 1 p.m. Registration for the free meeting is due Wednesday at 5 p.m.

Secure log off

Stephen Colbert:

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