In February, Wisconsin’s elections administration agency won a federal award for creating a program on cyber-security training. It’s one initiative made possible by a federal grant of just under $7 million made to the Wisconsin Elections Commission.
Reid Magney is a spokesperson for the Wisconsin Elections Commission. He says that agency prioritized the training of staff to support county and municipal clerks across the state.
“We used the first part of the money to make sure that we had staff in order to not only to secure our system, but also to be able to provide security training to our county and municipal clerks as well, because just having a secure system isn’t good enough when you’ve got 3,000 user of that system,” Magney says. “You also have to train them, and we basically had to develop all of our own training material.”
He says the money also went to implementing new technology, such as a 3rd factor authentication for anyone entering the voter registration system. The money has also been spent on hiring an advertising agency to inform the public about election security.
And just over $1 million went to a grant that would give election offices money to get new computers. Counties or municipalities that applied would be given up to 12 hundred dollars for a new computer that has malware protection.
“Our highest priority is making sure that the clerks who use our system have up-to-date computers because not only are they accessing our system, but they’re also communicating with voters and they’re also communicating with each other,” Magney says. “If one of them gets infected with malware, or just a run-of-the-mill computer virus, there’s the potential to spread that back to voters [and] other clerks.”
At the end of next month, computers that aren’t up-to-date won’t be able to access the statewide voter registration system — that’s called WisVote.
Scott McDonell is in charge of administering elections for Dane County. In a guest column for the Wisconsin State Journal yesterday, McDonell argued that the upgrades this year don’t totally protect Wisconsin elections. He argues that they ultimately protect WisVote from hackers, but leaves counties wide-open for an attack.
He says he is concerned about hackers holding local election information hostage, especially for cities and counties that have older technology.
McDonell says it is important that Wisconsin invests more in cyber-security before the 2020 primaries in April.
“Whoever wins Wisconsin basically wins the Presidential election. The rest of the world knows that, and we’re more at risk than we’ve ever been,” McDonell notes.
McDonell suggest that the state should invest in buying something called Albert sensors for every county.
“What they do is, every malware, everything that they are able to identify at Homeland Security or through the CIA, is loaded into these Albert sensors so that if that traffic with those fingerprints get through your firewall, it will alert both county staff and also the Center for Internet Security staff that you’ve been penetrated,” McDonell says. “[It] also [works] going back out, so if you were to click on a link you shouldn’t click on, that will also trigger this alert. It’s cutting edge, and it’s up to date.”
Dane County purchased an Albert sensor. But McDonell says it cost the county $20,000 — and that’s the nonprofit rate. McDonell says the commercial version can be ten times that.
If the nonprofit price was offered to all 72 Wisconsin counties, it would cost the state just under $1.5 million. But the elections commission says it’s not in the budget this year.
However, this week, the U.S. House of Representatives included $425 million in election security grants as a part of the spending bill.