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DHS cybersecurity rhetoric offers contradictions at DEF CON

The Vote Hacking Village at Defcon 26 in Las Vegas was an overwhelming jumble of activity — a mock vote manipulated, children hacking election results websites, machines being disassembled — and among it all were representatives from local and federal government, learning and sharing information and in the case of Jeanette Manfra, assistant secretary for the office of cybersecurity and communications in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), deflecting the reality of the situation.

In her DEF CON  keynote address, Manfra discussed government cybersecurity in general as well as the ways election security could be improved, but she contradicted herself by refusing to acknowledge the value of the work done by DEF CON and deflecting actions to bring about real change.

The old standby arguments

“The way the government runs, naturally it’s somewhat more complicated. We don’t do IT [in] government particularly well,” Manfra said as an explanation of the DHS’ role. She said DHS was responsible for the cybersecurity of 99 different federal agencies, which have traditionally been isolated in terms of managing security. “We’re trying to get to think about enterprise risk and think about the government as a whole.”

This is a good example of the tone Manfra tried to establish: self-deprecating, but honest about the situation, even if she omitted key pieces of information — such as the challenge of having a holistic view of federal cybersecurity when so many infosec leadership roles in government remain empty — which would contradict the point she made.

Manfra continued to bring up the fact that we live in confusing times in terms of cybersecurity, especially because “the internet has challenged everything when it comes to how we think about the role of government in defending and securing its citizens and its infrastructure.”

“For the first time in a national security space, the government is not on the front lines. Our companies are on the front lines; our citizens are on the front lines; all of you are on the front lines,” Manfra said and concluded this means everyone — government, the intelligence community and the private sector — needs to think differently about their roles in cybersecurity and how to work together. “Our adversaries have been taking advantage of us for a long time. They’ve been taking advantage of our traditional principles for a really long time. And, we’ve got to come up with a way to turn it back on them.”

The idea that the roles of government and the private sector are in flux because of changes in technology is arguably accurate, but the situation is more complex than Manfra portrays. One could just as easily point to the privatization of critical infrastructure and lack of regulations surrounding necessary security and system upgrades in that infrastructure as contributing risk factors.

Manfra’s call for more cooperation between the public and private sectors in terms of security has been a common theme from the government for the past few years. However, the government’s appeal to the private sector to cooperate out of the pride of helping the country has largely fallen on deaf ears, because as was true with Manfra’s speech, the government often fails to make a compelling case.

The government wants to share, but the private sector has little incentive to do so, and experts have said the private sector doesn’t necessarily trust it would benefit from such cooperation, nor that security would improve. Despite the continued reluctance from the private sector and the lack of specifics from the government about what such cooperation would look like, the government seems ready to continue pushing the idea.

Election deflection and contradictions

Once Manfra got to the topic of election security, she began to combine omissions of information with statements that contradicted and attempts to deflect suggestions to make meaningful improvements to security.

“Elections are more than just the voting machines … The complexity is actually a benefit,” Manfra said. “Going back to 2016 when we first started to understand that the Russians were attempting to undermine and sow chaos and discord and undermine our democracy in general — which by the way, they’ve been trying to do for decades, it’s just the technology has allowed them to do it at a better scale.”

Despite acknowledging that attempts to undermine our democracy have been happening “for decades,” Manfra failed to explain why efforts to investigate risk factors and offer aid to improve security did not begin until 2016.

Manfra went on to claim the research the government has done led to the conclusion that it is “really really difficult to try to manipulate the actual vote count itself.” She said there were a lot of reasons for this, including that election machines are “physically secured.” This claim garnered chuckles from the DEF CON crowd, who have little respect for things like padlocks.

Manfra said that while misinformation on social media was an issue, DHS was focused on manipulation of voter rolls and the systems that tally the votes. She gave an example of voters becoming disenfranchised with the system because their names weren’t on the rolls at their polling places. She admitted the local officials running these systems are often under-resourced and need help because they could be using old systems.

“They’re trying to undermine our democratic process and confidence that we have in the democratic process,” Manfra said. “There’s a lot of ways to do that without actually manipulating the vote. We’re very much focused on the state and local process that you and I all participate in — I hope — all the time.”

Manfra explicitly mentioned the effect in undermining the trust in the election that could occur if an adversary were to manipulate the unofficial tally being reported by states. However, Manfra contradicted herself by discounting the efforts by DEF CON — where an 11 year old girl hacked into a mock reporting website in 10 minutes and changed the results — telling reporters after the keynote, “If all you’re saying is ‘Look, even a kid can hack into this.’ You’re not getting the full story which could have the impact of the average voter not understanding.”

Manfra admitted the DHS has begun researching more experimental security technologies, like blockchain, to see what their effects could be on election security. But, it’s unclear how serious the DHS is about making changes that would improve security because she also shied away from mandating proven election security measures such as risk-limiting audits.

“I’m not there yet in terms of mandatory requirements,” Manfra told reporters. “I think mandatory requirements could chill, so then people are only about the compliance with the requirement and not the intent.”

Ultimately, it’s unclear if the DHS has real, actionable plans to improve election security beyond the nebulous idea of helping local officials — assuming those officials ask for help in the first place. DEF CON showed vulnerable areas (reporting websites) and ways to improve security (paper trails and risk-limiting audits), but DHS seemed more interested in waiting and watching than learning from the event.

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