Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Counties required to adopt security system

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OLYMPIA - Under a bill Secretary of State Steve Hobbs endorsed, all counties are required to install “Albert Systems,” a technology that notifies counties when there is an attempted cybersecurity attack. 

Even though ballot-counting machines are not connected to the Internet, election data is often circulated on Internet communication channels. Technology like the Albert System can help protect the security of county records by monitoring any attempt to manipulate, intercept, or tamper with data transmitted through these channels. 

While 36 of 39 counties across the state already use this system, the counties that don’t have expressed concern about requiring this technology. Lincoln County officials, for example, spoke to its use of the Albert System and its potential flaws.

“Lincoln County became a victim of a ransomware attack in 2020,” Rob Coffman, Lincoln County Commissioner, said. “At the time, it had Albert Systems monitoring the county network. That attack brought the county to its knees for months, costing tens of thousands of dollars.”

Coffman said the third-party non-profit which runs Albert Systems, the Center for Internet Security, never notified the county of the attack. 

The version of the bill that passed requires counties to install the Albert System specifically. “We all want secure elections,” Tom Gaines, Grant County Commissioner, said. “We all want to make sure that the people in our communities know that their data is safe, but we shouldn't be forced to put something into our data center that sits outside our firewall, that we’re not allowed to ask about, and that we don't get a dashboard to see what's going back and forth.”

Others, however, say this legislation is necessary and timely. 

“We are under threat from seen and unseen vulnerabilities within our election systems, and in Washington State,” prime sponsor, Sen. Joe Nguyễn, D-White Center, said. “Thanks to the leadership of our secretary of state, we figure by example. But we are not immune to the dangers that cast a shadow over the safety of our own votes.” 

Nguyễn described an instance last fall when an attempt was made across our state to compromise the systems. 

“Not all of these attacks are as obvious, but it's a stark reminder of the fragility of our democracy,” Nguyễn said. 

Hobbs, as well as his office personnel, added that attacks happen on a daily basis, more than we know, and that outside threats like “Russia and China” must be considered. 

Washington state law states that counties are given power to decide how they handle their internet security, but this law tweaks that. 

“Part of it is ensuring that the fortification of our election security systems is consistent across Washington state, and that we have a centralized area for us to review some of the protocols and testing the equipment as well,” Nguyễn said. “Oftentimes, I think local jurisdictions for a variety of reasons are able to have their own methodologies, but in certain cases, it's good to make sure that there's an extra level of check.” 

Thurston County Auditor Mary Hall spoke in support on behalf of the Washington State Association of County Auditors, stating that Washington’s election security is “only as good as our weakest link.”

Hall said a portion of the bill she appreciates puts counties on a timeline to certify their election results. 

While no counties in Washington State have ever done this, lawmakers, Hobbs and Hall recognized that this has been an issue across the country in the past, specifically as it relates to “stolen elections.”

“There are a lot of disinformation campaigns that are targeting election officials, but it's a sobering reality that bad actors have been elected to positions like mine,” Hall said. “So, this bill will ensure that valid election results will be certified and that there are consequences for someone trying to disrupt our election process.”

The bill requires election results to be transferred from counties to the secretary of state by certification deadlines. Deadlines can vary for each election cycle.

The Washington State Journal is a non-profit news website funded by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation.

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