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2020 U.S. Election: Cybersecurity Analysis


11 min read

As the election season has ramped down and the new Presidential Administration begins, we think it’s important to assess whether there are lessons we can draw from our experience helping to provide cybersecurity services for those involved in the 2020 U.S. elections.

Cloudflare built the Athenian Project - our project to provide free services to state and local election websites - around the idea that access to the authoritative voting information offered by state and local governments is key to a functioning democracy and that Cloudflare could play an important role in ensuring that election-related websites are protected from cyberattacks intended to disrupt that access. Although the most significant challenges in this election cycle fell outside the realm of cybersecurity, the 2020 election certainly validated the importance of having access to definitive sources of authoritative election information.

We were pleased that the robust cybersecurity preparations we saw for the 2020 U.S. election appeared to be successful. From the Cloudflare perspective, we had the opportunity to witness firsthand the benefits of having access to free cybersecurity services provided to organizations that promote accurate voting information and election results, state and local governments conducting elections, and federal US candidates running for office. As we protect many entities in the election space, we have the ability to identify, learn and analyze attack trends targeted at these sites that provide authoritative election information. We hope that we will continue to be able to assist researchers, policymakers and security experts looking to support best practices to protect the integrity of the electoral process.

Supporting free and fair elections

Many state and local governments bolstered their security postures ahead of the 2020 elections. There have been partnerships between governments, organizations, and private companies assisting election officials with the tools and expertise on best ways to secure the democratic process. Additionally, the spread of COVID-19 has prompted unprecedented challenges on how citizens can vote safely and securely.

Before the 2020 U.S. election, we detailed much of the activity targeting those in the election space to prepare for election day. To the relief of security experts, there were no significant publicly reported cybersecurity incidents as Chris Krebs, Director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency during the 2020 election described it as “just another Tuesday on the Internet.” On November 12, 2020, a joint statement from the leading election security organizations stated “The November 3rd election was the most secure in American history . . . [T]here is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.”

At Cloudflare, we had a team of over 50 employees monitoring and addressing any issues to ensure we were providing our highest level of support to those working in the election space. It is important to note that our services do not protect electronic voting boxes or ballot counters; instead, Cloudflare services provide protection to websites, applications, and APIs. But we do protect many websites that provide pertinent information on the electoral process in the United States. This includes a wide range of players in the election space that facilitate voter registration, provide information on polling places, and publish election results. Since the 2016 election, state and local government websites that provide information such as voter registration, polling places, and election results, which have been increasingly targeted with cyberattacks.

Protecting organizations in the election space with Project Galileo

We launched Project Galileo in 2014 to provide a free set of security services to a range of vulnerable groups on the Internet such as human rights organizations, journalists and social justice organizations. Under the project, we currently protect more than 1,400 organizations working in regions all over the world with many organizations that work towards providing accurate voting information, tackling voter suppression, providing resources on voting rights and publishing election results. Cloudflare works with a variety of different types of non-governmental entities under Project Galileo, but we generally put them into two groups: participants, who are granted the benefits of Project Galileo, and partners, who work with us to identify other organizations who might be worth supporting. Our partners are typically larger civil society organizations and high profile NGOs, who work with entities who might benefit from our services and decide who should receive Cloudflare protections under the project.

Many of these organizations need cybersecurity protections well before election day. Belmont University is a private, four-year university located in Nashville, Tennessee. Shortly after the University was selected to be the site of the third and final 2020 U.S. Presidential Debate, the University reached out to Cloudflare asking for assistance. As part of the support for the debate, Belmont launched a new website to provide a centralized space for volunteers, media, and the community to prepare and organize the debate.

The project was quickly accepted to Project Galileo and we worked with Paul Chenoweth, Web Programming Service Manager for Belmont University to tackle concerns over server capacity, visitor traffic, site security, and analytics. Chenoweth explains, “We faced a number of web site challenges in 2008 when the university hosted the Town Hall Presidential Debate and with a totally new set of conditions in 2020, we did not know what to expect. We were worried about our site being taken down by malicious actors but also by unpredictable surges in traffic to the site. The Cloudflare team helped us create firewall rules, lock down our origin, and provided support during the Presidential debate.” Due to the spread of COVID-19, the debate website was the primary source of information for media registration, volunteer applications, and the event calendar for more than 40 themed virtual education events for the community. Overall, the university saw a 5x increase in traffic and blocked more than 80,000 malicious HTTP requests targeting their site.

Read stories from these organizations and Project Galileo here.

Under Project Galileo, we provide powerful cybersecurity tools to assist organizations such as Vote America, U.S. Vote Foundation, Decision Desk HQ, and many more working in the election space to identify and mitigate attacks targeting their web infrastructure. Along with protection from malicious DDoS attacks, our services also help with large influxes of unexpected traffic as organizations tend to see traffic spikes during voter registration deadlines. During the months leading up to elections, many of these organizations provided up to date information on the changing voting processes due to COVID-19. During the ballot count, many organizations posted election results online as state and local governments began reporting official numbers.

Many of the election-related organizations under Project Galileo allow you to register to vote, view the status of your voting ballot, and much more. States often hold their state and presidential primaries on different dates with the earliest primaries for 2020 held in March with 24 states and June with 23 states. When looking at cyberattacks against election organizations during the elections, the Cloudflare WAF blocked more than 10 million attacks in 2020. We can see that the WAF mitigated a majority of attacks during these two months, as many states held elections and voter registration deadlines.

Protecting election websites with the Athenian Project

In 2017, we launched the Athenian Project to provide our highest level of service to U.S. state and local governments running elections. This includes county board of election websites, Secretaries of State, and many smaller municipalities that register citizens to vote and publish election results. Under the Athenian Project, we protect more than 275 election entities in 30 states. In the past year, we onboarded more than 100 government election sites in preparation for the November 3rd election.

Read stories from state and local governments protected under the Athenian project here.

During the month leading up to elections, we had a team of engineers ready to assist state and local governments looking for help protecting their websites from cyberattacks. We onboarded Solano County in California, who engaged with our team on the best way to secure their election resources as we approached November 3rd.  The right to a free and fair election is one of the most basic civil rights we enjoy as Americans; it is a right upon which many of our foundational civil rights depend. Creating the conditions for transparent, clear, and truthful communications about the process and outcomes of elections is crucial to maintain the public trust in our electoral process, says Tim Flanagan, Chief Information Officer for Solano County. In a few hours, we onboarded the county to Cloudflare and implemented best-practices tailored for election entities that use our services under the Athenian Project. Cloudflare’s services added additional layers of security to our web presence that raised confidence in our ability to assure County’s residents that our election results were trustworthy.

Starting in November, we saw traffic to government election sites increase as many people looked for polling places or how to contact local election officials. We also saw those traffic spikes after election day, as many election websites post periodic updates as the counting of ballots ensues. We reported many of these traffic spikes in the Election Dashboard with Cloudflare Radar.

For cyberattacks targeting government election websites, we found a majority of attacks before election day and primarily in September with about 50 million HTTPS requests blocked by the web application firewall.

From November 4 to November 11, the WAF mitigated 16,304,656 malicious requests to sites under the Athenian Project. During this time, many state and local governments were counting ballots and posting election results to their websites. A majority of attacks were blocked by the managed ruleset in the WAF - a set of rules curated by Cloudflare engineers to block against common vulnerabilities - including SQLi, cross-site scripting and cross-site forgery requests. These are not sophisticated attacks that we see, but hackers looking for vulnerabilities to access or modify sensitive information. For example, file inclusion is an attack targeting web applications to upload malware to steal or modify the content of the site.

Protecting Political Campaigns in 2020

In January 2020, we launched Cloudflare for Campaigns, a suite of free security services to federal campaigns with our partnership with Defending Digital Campaigns. During the course of the year, we onboarded 75 campaigns ranging from House, Senate, and Presidential candidates running for election in 2020. At Cloudflare, we have a range of campaigns that use our services ranging from free up to our Enterprise level plan. Overall, we protected more than 450 candidate sites running for federal office in 2020.

In 2020, the average number of attacks on U.S. campaign websites on Cloudflare per month was about 13 million. When comparing attacks against political campaigns and government election sites, we saw more DDoS attacks rather than hackers trying to exploit website vulnerabilities. As depicted below, campaigns used Cloudflare’s layer 7 DDoS protection that automatically monitors and mitigates large DDoS attacks, alongside rate-limiting to mitigate malicious traffic. For election websites, it’s clear that hackers tried to exploit common website vulnerabilities that were blocked by the WAF and firewall rules, with the goal of gaining access to internal systems rather than make the site inaccessible like we see in DDoS attacks.

Lessons learned and how we move forward

We learned a lot from preparing for the 2020 U.S. election while engaging with those in the election space and learned to be flexible in the face of the unexpected. We learned that COVID-19 had impacted many of these groups at a disproportionate rate.  For example, organizations that work in promoting online voter registration were well suited for the move to online that we found ourselves in during COVID-19. For political candidates, they had to adapt to moving campaign events and outreach to an online environment rather than the traditional campaign operations of door-knocking and large fundraising events. This move online meant that campaigns needed to pay more attention to digital risks.

We also learned as we approached the November election that the election space involves a range of players. Protecting elections requires not only working with governments to secure their websites for the unexpected, but also working with campaigns and non-profit organizations who work on election-related issues. We appreciated the fact that Cloudflare has many different projects that support a range of players working in promoting trust in the electoral process, giving us the flexibility to protect them. Many of these players need different levels of support and assistance with how to properly protect their web infrastructure from cyberattacks, and having a range of projects offering a different level of plans and support, helped us in finding the best way to protect them. We were able to provide a free set of services to a wide range of players each with separate goals but a common mission: providing authoritative information to build trust in the electoral process.

Both the awareness of the importance of election security and election security itself has improved since the 2016 election. We have seen the benefits of sharing information across many partners, organizations, and local players. To help prepare state and local governments for elections, we conducted webinars and security tunings sessions for many of these election players. In the case of state and local governments we protect under the Athenian Project, as we conducted more security training, we saw many participants recommend others in their state to ensure they were protected as well. For example, a week before the general election, the Wisconsin Election Commission sent an election security reminder with resources on how to mitigate a DDoS attack with Cloudflare to county and municipal clerks across Wisconsin.

At Cloudflare, we worked with a variety of government agencies to share threat information that we saw targeted against these participants. Days before the November 3rd election, we were invited to the last meeting conducted by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency to share threats data we had seen against government election websites and how they could be mitigated to more than 200 general election stakeholders, including counties across the United States.

Weeks after the election, I spoke with Stacy Mahaney, the Chief Information Officer at the Missouri Secretary of State, which is currently protected under the Athenian Project. His comment aptly summarized Cloudflare’s security practices. Security is like an onion. Every layer of security that you add protects against various layers of attack or exposure. We were able to add layers to our security defenses with Cloudflare. The more layers you add, the more difficult it is for attackers to succeed in making voters question the trust of the democratic process that we work to protect every day.”  Information security is about prevention and detection and is a continual process that involves monitoring, training, and threat analysis. By adding more layers including tools such as a web application firewall, 2FA, SSL encryption, authentication protocols, and security awareness training, it makes it more difficult for hackers to penetrate through the security layers.

Although cybersecurity experts concluded that the 2020 election was one of the safest in the history of elections, the work is not done yet. Not only will future U.S. election cycles begin again soon,  but election security is a global concern that benefits from the involvement of experienced players with appropriate expertise. The longer we engage with those working with those in the election space, the more we learn the best ways to protect their web infrastructure and internal teams. We look forward to continuing our work to protect resources in the voting process and help build trust in democratic institutions.

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Jocelyn Woolbright|@jo_woolbright

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