DHS’s Nielsen says elections systems secure, no evidence of nation-state interference

Despite the myriad concerns around safeguarding election systems, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said Friday the 2018 midterms are likely the most secure election the U.S. has conducted and reiterated that the DHS has no evidence that any nation-state is currently infiltrating election systems.

At a Council on Foreign Relations meeting, Nielsen indicated that front end work securing polling infrastructure – against attack and suppression – has paid off but foreign actors still pose a more daunting threat. "There’s no evidence that anyone can hack one time and take out [the whole] system,” she said.

“The other threat that is much more difficult to combat and more pernicious is the influence of foreign government,” Nielsen said, explaining that while the U.S. has “seen continued attempts to scan [systems], like a burglar walking around your house and checking the windows” as well as some attempts at intrusion, there is no evidence a foreign power has been successful. “As of today, there’s no activity we’ve attributed to a foreign power.”

She distinguished between the efforts of China, which she said is “playing a long game,” in a prolonged attempt to change attitudes and influence policy, and Russia, which is “much more brazen and noisy, trying to disrupt the here and now.”

Nielsen also commended that social media companies like Facebook, which, in the last few months, have been removing “inauthentic” accounts that don’t comply with their rules.

“They’ve taken a lot of leadership in this area,” she said.

But foreign actors now understand that those accounts are being taken down and are adjusting their strategies, taking messages from legitimate entities and “amplifying them.”

On election night Nielsen and her crew will operate a “virtual war room,” bringing together members of the intelligence community, political parties and others “so as things evolve…we can respond.” And that means passing information along to states and counties as necessarily regardless of security clearance. “Many folks have clearance and those that don’t, we’ve made it clear, we will share,” she said. “I won’t let clearances stand in the way.”

She expects a high degree of cooperation. States are less concerned now than they were in 2016 that the federal government will come in and take over their elections she said.

In addition to pushing basic cybersecurity hygiene and helping states get funding to update their voting systems and processes, Nielsen said she wants all states to use auditable, paper-based voting systems by 2020.

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