What role can technology play in mitigating the threat of election disinformation?
the Pitt Disinformation Lab to University of Pittsburgh Institute for Cybersecurity Law, Policy and Security hosted an online event today to find the answer. The event was part of an ongoing series from the lab with speakers focusing on election security and the preservation of democracy through the use of cybersecurity, data science and other technologies.
Join the Founding Director of Pitt Cyber David Hickton has been Microsoft Director of Information Integrity Matt Mastersonwho also served as a senior cybersecurity advisor to the Department of Homeland Security and as a commissioner in the United States Election Assistance Commission. The discussion focused on the rise of misinformation in US elections through technology, and Masterson’s recent post “Zero Trust: How to secure the US election when losers won’t accept that they lostwhich explores solutions to election security amid public mistrust. Previous speakers in the event series have included the Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Secretary of State of Georgia Brad Raffensperger.
Masterson has a long career in election security, but he first realized the growing role of technology while working in the office of the Ohio Secretary of State. While there, he said, he was “really understanding and working to understand how elections work, how technology plays [a role] at the forefront of running elections and what steps we can take to improve access, integrity and accuracy of our elections.
Drawing on experience dating back to the tumultuous presidential election of 2000, Masterson said: “The level of attention, the level of scrutiny, the level of misinformation around elections in our systems – it’s mind-boggling, given how little of attention paid to this, even going out of [that election].”
“Zero Trust,” which he released with students in 2021 while a nonresident fellow at the Stanford University Internet Observatory, specifically outlines three major threats to election security that Masterson has experienced during his career and provides 11 recommendations to address them. This encompasses known issues such as the increase in physical threats against election officials and “broad mistrust fomented by actors in bad faith”, as well as a widespread understanding, both at home and abroad, of the way to undermine confidence in the election results.
But the report also highlighted the need for increased funding and governance structures around election IT infrastructure. Specifically, the report singled out ransomware as an emerging threat and pointed out that underfunded local governments running election systems lack the defenses they need to prevent attacks from cybercriminals.
“We have therefore explored a variety of policy and technical recommendations to help provide voters with the level of transparency and evidence they need to be able to overcome an environment in which there is an active campaign to undermine trust in elections. “, Masterson said of the report. These recommendations include increased funding, preparing the government to respond to disinformation, better educating the public, using paper-based systems for audits, establishing minimum cybersecurity baselines for election offices. and suppliers, and a centralized election information system.
Already, Congress has implemented new measures that align with some of these recommendations, including the Strengthening the US Cybersecurity Act of 2022, which was adopted earlier this month. A number of other recommendations were also considered, Masterson said, including expanding the Agency for Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Cross feed program.
The biggest remaining threat, though?
“Funding our elections,” Masterson said, despite progress on some of the report’s other recommendations. “We continue not to provide [election officials] with the level of resources both from a financial point of view but also from a personal point of view [in terms of] the level of IT expertise they need to continue improving election security.
As long as this is true, there will be continued threats to the security and integrity of US elections, he said. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing more to do in the meantime.
“There are ways to manage that risk that are really important,” Masterson said. “And it’s not just about the cybersecurity of the process anymore. It’s also about being able to talk to voters about those steps and how that improves safety.
For more information on Masterson’s discussion and relevant work at Pitt Cyber, check out the institute’s website and stay tuned for more upcoming events.
Sophie Burkholder is a 2021-2022 corps member of Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by Heinz endowments. -30-