75% of all 56 U.S. states and territories leading up to the presidential election, showed signs of a vulnerable IT infrastructure, a SecurityScorecard report reveals.
Since most state websites offer access to voter and election information, these findings may indicate unforeseen issues leading up to, and following, the US election.
Election infrastructure: High-level findings
Seventy-five percent of U.S. states and territories’ overall cyberhealth are rated a ‘C’ or below; 35% have a ‘D’ and below. States with a grade of ‘C’ are 3x more likely to experience a breach (or incident, such as ransomware) compared to an ‘A’ based on a three-year SecurityScorecard study of historical data. Those with a ‘D’ are nearly 5x more likely to experience a breach.
- States with the highest scores: Kentucky (95) Kansas (92) Michigan (92)
- States with the lowest scores: North Dakota (59) Illinois (60) Oklahoma (60)
- Among states and territories, there are as many ‘F’ scores as there are ‘A’s
- The Pandemic Effect: Many states’ scores have dropped significantly since January. For example, North Dakota scored a 72 in January and now has a 59. Why? Remote work mandates gave state networks a larger attack surface (e.g., thousands of state workers on home Wi-Fi), making it more difficult to ensure employees are using up-to-date software.
Significant security concerns were observed with two critically important “battleground” states, Iowa and Ohio, both of which scored a 68, or a ‘D’ rating.
The battleground states
According to political experts, the following states are considered “battleground” and will help determine the result of the election. But over half have a lacking overall IT infrastructure:
- Michigan: 92 (A)
- North Carolina: 81 (B)
- Wisconsin: 88 (B)
- Arizona: 81 (B)
- Texas: 85 (B)
- New Hampshire: 77 (C)
- Pennsylvania: 85 (B)
- Georgia: 77 (C)
- Nevada: 74 (C)
- Iowa: 68 (D)
- Florida: 73 (C)
- Ohio: 68 (D)
“This is especially true in ‘battleground states’ where the Department of Homeland Security, political parties, campaigns, and state government officials should enforce vigilance through continuously monitoring state voter registration networks and web applications for the purpose of mitigating incoming attacks from malicious actors.
“The digital storage and transmission of voter registration and voter tally data needs to remain flawlessly intact. Some states have been doing well regarding their overall cybersecurity posture, but the vast majority have major improvements to make.”
Potential consequences of lower scores
- Targeted phishing/malware delivery via e-mail and other mediums, potentially as a means to both infect networks and spread misinformation. Malicious actors often sell access to organizations they have successfully infected.
- Attacks via third-party vendors – many states use the same vendors, so access into one could mean access to all. This is the top cybersecurity concern for political campaigns.
- Voter registration databases could be impacted. In the worst-case scenario, attackers could remove voter registrations or change voter precinct information or make crucial systems entirely unavailable on Election Day through ransomware.
“These poor scores have consequences that go beyond elections; the findings show chronic underinvestment in IT by state governments,” said Rob Knake, the former director for cybersecurity policy at the White House in the Obama Administration.
“For instance, combatting COVID-19 requires the federal government to rely on the apparatus of the states. It suggests the need for a massive influx of funds as part of any future stimulus to refresh state IT systems to not only ensure safe and secure elections, but save more lives.”
A set of best practices for states
- Create dedicated voter and election-specific websites under the domains of the official state domain, rather than using alternative domain names which can be subjected to typosquatting
- Have an IT team specifically tasked and accountable for bolstering voter and election website cybersecurity: defined as confidentiality, integrity, and availability of all processed information
- States should establish clear lines of authority for updating the information on these sites that includes the ‘two-person’ rule — no single individual should be able to update information without a second person authorizing it
- States and counties should continuously monitor the cybersecurity exposure of all assets associated with election systems, and ensure that vendors supplying equipment and services to the election process undergo stringent processes