A polling official walks past voting booths at the Fairfield County Board of Elections Office in Lancaster, Ohio, in 2016. (Ty Wright / Bloomberg News)

A polling official walks past voting booths at the Fairfield County Board of Elections Office in Lancaster, Ohio, in 2016. (Ty Wright / Bloomberg News)

First line of defense in elections has critical weaknesses

Detection software is not yet deployed at 9,000 local jurisdictions where votes are actually cast.

  • Nafeesa Syeed Bloomberg
  • Tuesday, May 29, 2018 6:10am
  • Nation-World

By Nafeesa Syeed / Bloomberg News

A software sensor with a knack for detecting intrusions like those from Russian hackers is being embraced by states determined to protect their election systems, though cybersecurity experts warn of the tool’s limits.

The Department of Homeland Security is working with a growing number of state election officials to install “Albert sensors,” which detect traffic coming into and out of a computer network. The system can’t block a suspected attack, but it funnels suspicious information to a federal-state information-sharing center near Albany, New York, that’s intended to help identify malign behavior and alert states quickly.

“Every sensor we’re able to add is another in what was previously a dark spot” that federal authorities “couldn’t see into,” said Brian Calkin, vice president of operations for the Multi-State Information Sharing and Analysis Center, the Homeland Security-funded group that created the sensor in 2010 and upgraded it in 2014.

The sensors — modeled after a system used to protect federal government networks that’s named after scientist Albert Einstein — are now installed in 29 states, according to a Homeland Security official. But experts caution that they’re not deployed to most of the 9,000 local jurisdictions where votes are actually cast, and sophisticated hackers can sneak past the sensors undetected.

With congressional primaries already underway, and elections planned next month in almost two dozen states including California, New York, New Jersey, Virginia and Iowa, administration critics say not enough has been done to harden the U.S. election infrastructure against attacks like those seen in 2016.

Intelligence agencies have warned Russia is likely to try to interfere in U.S. elections again this year. The Trump administration has sought to assure lawmakers that it’s working with states to beef up election security, and Homeland Security leaders officials often tout the Albert sensor as a sign of how they’re buttressing states.

The sensors helped the federal government conclude that Russia targeted voter registration databases in 21 states in 2016, yet not all states had the devices then, Jeanette Manfra, Homeland Security assistant secretary, said.

“We can assume that the majority of states were probably a target,” Manfra told the Senate Homeland Security Committee April 24. But with more states now placing the sensors on their systems, “we are increasing our visibility,” she said.

While cybersecurity analysts say that’s a good first step, a former DHS official familiar with the department’s cybersecurity programs said the department has failed to pitch the sensors to county clerks, leaving gaps in monitoring voter rolls and voting machines.

To say that an Albert sensor “is the panacea, it’s the silver bullet, is completely misleading — it’s a misunderstanding of the reality of the situation,” said Bob Stasio, a fellow at the Truman National Security Project and former chief of operations at the National Security Agency’s Cyber Operations Center.

States decide where they want to affix the sensors. Some use them to monitor the secretary of state’s office computer network, while others use them as sentinels for their voter registration database.

One key advantage for cash-strapped states: The system is provided for free.

The device mines “signatures” that could point to malicious actors, such as internet protocol addresses associated with Russian hackers. But it’s only as good as the signatures that officials feed into the sensor, so that it knows what to look out for. A second former DHS official said that unless intelligence agencies flag specific signatures to Homeland Security, the sensors won’t be very useful to states.

There are other limitations.

The second former official called the technology antiquated — the equivalent of a five-foot chain-link fence — because it doesn’t incorporate newer methods such as encryption to protect material in a network.

The Albert sensor acts like the guard at the entrance of a movie complex, according to Stasio. The guard stands at the door keeping an eye out for someone with a gun in the crowd — just as the sensor looks for a hacker in network traffic.

If someone sneaks in a gun under a coat undetected, there needs to be another guard — or sensor — in each theater, representing what cyber analysts call the “endpoint” for network traffic.

Intruders like the Russians who meddled in the 2016 election represent “very advanced threats — they’re going to be able to understand how to get past that first gate-guard that guards the main door,” Stasio said.

Hackers also can slip through if they get a hold of stolen passwords from election officials’ systems.

“Adversaries are able to masquerade their activity as something that’s somewhat normal because they’re getting legitimate credentials for state election officials,” according to Beau Woods, cyber safety innovation fellow with the Atlantic Council in Washington.

Still, many states see Albert sensors as valuable tools.

Texas deployed a sensor on its voter registration database in January, ahead of its May primaries. Vermont, which holds primaries in August, started using the device a month ago.

Maryland’s State Board of Elections said it has requested an Albert sensor for its online voter registration database and online ballot delivery systems, which are hosted by an outside company. The state has primaries in June.

Although the sensors are free for states and some large counties, smaller localities have to pay fees of $600 to $1,500 a month, according to the Multi-State Information Sharing and Analysis Center.

The Florida Department of State has an Albert sensor monitoring its network in advance of its August primaries. Now it’s also providing county election supervisors with $1.9 million in grants — from federal funding — to buy the Albert devices, department spokeswoman Sarah Revell said.

Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate said that earlier this year he added an Albert sensor to his office’s computer network, which is separate from the state network. He’d like to get them to counties so that they’re “equally protected,” he said. Iowa’s primaries are June 5.

“We know in Iowa, thousands a day try to get into the government systems,” Pate said.

Albert sensors went live in Franklin County, home to Ohio’s capital of Columbus, just days before the state’s May 8 primary. As a large county with almost 860,000 registered voters, it didn’t have to pay, county elections board spokesman Aaron Sellers said.

“We are a bellwether state — it seems every two to four years we’re always in the crosshairs,” Sellers said. “If there’s ways we can reassure” voters “without getting into the gory details of what we’re doing, it puts them more at ease.”

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Nation-World

FILE - Britain's Queen Elizabeth II looks on during a visit to officially open the new building at Thames Hospice, Maidenhead, England July 15, 2022. Buckingham Palace says Queen Elizabeth II is under medical supervision as doctors are “concerned for Her Majesty’s health.” The announcement comes a day after the 96-year-old monarch canceled a meeting of her Privy Council and was told to rest. (Kirsty O'Connor/Pool Photo via AP, File)
Queen Elizabeth II dead at 96 after 70 years on the throne

Britain’s longest-reigning monarch and a rock of stability across much of a turbulent century died Thursday.

A woman reacts as she prepares to leave an area for relatives of the passengers aboard China Eastern's flight MU5735 at the Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport, Tuesday, March 22, 2022, in Guangzhou. No survivors have been found as rescuers on Tuesday searched the scattered wreckage of a China Eastern plane carrying 132 people that crashed a day earlier on a wooded mountainside in China's worst air disaster in more than a decade. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
No survivors found in crash of Boeing 737 in China

What caused the plane to drop out of the sky shortly before it was to being its descent remained a mystery.

In this photo taken by mobile phone released by Xinhua News Agency, a piece of wreckage of the China Eastern's flight MU5735 are seen after it crashed on the mountain in Tengxian County, south China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region on Monday, March 21, 2022. A China Eastern Boeing 737-800 with 132 people on board crashed in a remote mountainous area of southern China on Monday, officials said, setting off a forest fire visible from space in the country's worst air disaster in nearly a decade. (Xinhua via AP)
Boeing 737 crashes in southern China with 132 aboard

More than 15 hours after communication was lost with the plane, there was still no word of survivors.

In this photo taken from video provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks to the nation in Kyiv, Ukraine, Sunday, Feb. 27, 2022. Street fighting broke out in Ukraine's second-largest city Sunday and Russian troops put increasing pressure on strategic ports in the country's south following a wave of attacks on airfields and fuel facilities elsewhere that appeared to mark a new phase of Russia's invasion. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)
Ukraine wants EU membership, but accession often takes years

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s request has enthusiastic support from several member states.

FILE - Ukrainian servicemen walk by fragments of a downed aircraft,  in in Kyiv, Ukraine, Friday, Feb. 25, 2022. The International Criminal Court's prosecutor has put combatants and their commanders on notice that he is monitoring Russia's invasion of Ukraine and has jurisdiction to prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity. But, at the same time, Prosecutor Karim Khan acknowledges that he cannot investigate the crime of aggression. (AP Photo/Oleksandr Ratushniak, File)
ICC prosecutor to open probe into war crimes in Ukraine

U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet confirmed that 102 civilians have been killed.

FILE - Refugees fleeing conflict from neighboring Ukraine arrive to Zahony, Hungary, Sunday, Feb. 27, 2022. As hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians seek refuge in neighboring countries, cradling children in one arm and clutching belongings in the other, leaders in Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Moldova and Romania are offering a hearty welcome. (AP Photo/Anna Szilagyi, File)
Europe welcomes Ukrainian refugees — others, less so

It is a stark difference from treatment given to migrants and refugees from the Middle East and Africa.

Afghan evacuees disembark the plane and board a bus after landing at Skopje International Airport, North Macedonia, on Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021. North Macedonia has hosted another group of 44 Afghan evacuees on Wednesday where they will be sheltered temporarily till their transfer to final destinations. (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski)
‘They are safe here.’ Snohomish County welcomes hundreds of Afghans

The county’s welcoming center has been a hub of services and assistance for migrants fleeing Afghanistan since October.

FILE - In this April 15, 2019, file photo, a vendor makes change for a marijuana customer at a cannabis marketplace in Los Angeles. An unwelcome trend is emerging in California, as the nation's most populous state enters its fifth year of broad legal marijuana sales. Industry experts say a growing number of license holders are secretly operating in the illegal market — working both sides of the economy to make ends meet. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)
In California pot market, a hazy line between legal and not

Industry insiders say the practice of working simultaneously in the legal and illicit markets is a financial reality.

19 dead, including 9 children, in NYC apartment fire

More than five dozen people were injured and 13 people were still in critical condition in the hospital.

15 dead after Russian skydiver plane crashes

The L-410, a Czech-made twin-engine turboprop, crashed near the town of Menzelinsk.

FILE - In this March 29, 2018, file photo, the logo for Facebook appears on screens at the Nasdaq MarketSite in New York's Times Square. Facebook prematurely turned off safeguards designed to thwart misinformation and rabble rousing after Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump in the 2020 elections in a moneymaking move that a company whistleblower alleges contributed to the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, invasion of the U.S. Capitol. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)
Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram in hourslong worldwide outage

Something made the social media giant’s routes inaccessable to the rest of the internet.

Oil washed up on Huntington Beach, Calif., on Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021. A major oil spill off the coast of Southern California fouled popular beaches and killed wildlife while crews scrambled Sunday to contain the crude before it spread further into protected wetlands. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
Crews race to limited damage from California oil spill

At least 126,000 gallons (572,807 liters) of oil spilled into the waters off Orange County.

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.