(Bloomberg) -- U.S. officials are weighing whether to designate elections as national critical infrastructure after recent hacking attacks on political groups, a move that would open up federal assistance to election officers around the country, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said.
“We should carefully consider whether our election system, our election process, is critical infrastructure," Johnson told reporters Wednesday at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. "There’s a vital national interest in our election process."
The debate comes after hackers infiltrated the computer networks of the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in what cybersecurity experts call a broad operation by Russian operatives to infiltrate U.S. political organizations. Hillary Clinton’s campaign said hackers also breached one of its data programs, adding that cybersecurity efforts found “no evidence” that internal systems were compromised.
The attacks, which the FBI is investigating, have spurred speculation that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government is trying to meddle in and influence U.S. elections, an assertion that officials in Moscow have repeatedly denied.
The breaches also revive a lingering debate over whether electronic voting systems, which have replaced paper ballots in many jurisdictions, could be hacked to manipulate the results. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump said this week that he’s “afraid the election’s gonna be rigged,” although Republicans have focused mostly on potential fraud by ineligible voters.
Asked Tuesday about the reports of Russia’s possible involvement in hacking, President Barack Obama said, “If in fact Russia engaged in this activity, it’s just one on a long list of issues that me and Mr. Putin talk about and that I’ve got a real problem with.”
Johnson said the U.S. wasn’t yet prepared to attribute the attacks to any particular nation or group. Designating elections as critical infrastructure would put them on par with other vital national assets, such as the power grid and pipelines.
Presidential Policy Directive
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters that members of the president’s national security team are discussing the proposal. "It’s important for the federal government to offer support to state and local governments" in their efforts, he said.
The Department of Homeland Security has the authority to designate what qualifies as critical infrastructure under Presidential Policy Directive 21 and Executive Order 13636, said Bruce McConnell, former DHS deputy undersecretary for cybersecurity. In reality, though, Johnson is vetting the proposal through the interagency process and floating it publicly to ensure it has support before making a final decision, he said.
"It’s not that they would take unilateral action but legally they have the authority to do this," said McConnell, who is now global vice president of the nonprofit EastWest Institute, based in New York.
It isn’t clear what difference such a designation would make on the upcoming November elections, as any new funding for security would have to be approved by Congress.
For this year’s elections, McConnell has recommended that DHS issue a security alert warning election officials of risks to their systems, advising them of the need to have an audit trail and paper backups, and calling on companies supplying voting machines and other equipment to go through independent audits with published results.
Designating voting systems as critical infrastructure also must be accompanied by specific ways to help state and local election official improve the security of their systems, such as through grant funding, said Larry Clinton, president of the Internet Security Alliance, a cybersecurity trade association.
"I just want to make sure nobody thinks there’s a magic wand that comes along with designating it as critical infrastructure," Clinton of the alliance said in an interview. "There has to be some actual money at the end of the pipeline."
The government could try to mandate security improvements as a condition of receiving funding, Clinton said. A better approach, he said, would be to offer incentives, as the government does to encourage states to improve the safety of highways.
‘Invest the Resources’
"The point is, do you have an actual plan as to how to correct the problems and are you willing to invest the resources?" Clinton said. "We certainly hope this would not be more public relations than actual security."
In the short term, Johnson said he is considering working with election officials across the country with regard to what kind of “best practices” they can adopt to enhance cybersecurity.
"This is something that we’re very focused on right now," Johnson said. "There’s no one federal election system. There are some 9,000 jurisdictions across this country that are involved in the election process."
--With assistance from Angela Greiling Keane
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