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Protecting election groups during the 2022 US midterm elections


5 min read
Protecting election groups during the 2022 US midterm elections

On Tuesday, November 8, 2022, constituents cast their ballots for the 2022 US midterm elections, which included races for all 435 seats in the House of Representatives, 35 of the 100 seats in the Senate, and many gubernatorial races in states including Florida, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Preparing for elections is a giant task, and states and localities have their work cut out for them with corralling poll workers, setting up polling places, and managing the physical security of ballots and voting machines.

We at Cloudflare are proud to be able to play a role in helping safeguard the integrity of the electoral process. Through our Impact programs, we provide cyber security products to help protect access to authoritative voting information and the security of sensitive voter data.

We have reported on our work in the election space with the Athenian Project, dedicated to protecting state and local governments that run elections; Cloudflare for Campaigns, a project with a suite of Cloudflare products to secure political campaigns’ and state parties’ websites and internal teams; and Project Galileo, in which we have helped voting rights organizations and election results sites stay online during traffic spikes.

Since our reporting in 2020, we have expanded our relationships with government agencies and worked with project participants across the United States in a range of election roles to support free and fair elections. For the midterm elections, we continued to support election entities with the tools and expertise on how to secure their web infrastructure to promote trust in the voting process.

Overall, we were ready for the unexpected, as we had experience supporting those in the election community in 2020 during a time of uncertainty around COVID-19 and increased political polarization. But for the midterms, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), the key agency tasked with protecting election infrastructure against cyber threats, reported the morning of November 8 that they “continue to see no specific or credible threat to disrupt election infrastructure” for the day of the election.

At Cloudflare, although we did see reports of a few smaller attacks and outages, we are pleased that the robust cyber security preparations by governments, nonprofits, local municipalities, campaigns, and state parties appeared to be successful, as we did not identify large-scale attacks on November 8, 2022.

Below are highlights on the activity we saw as we approached midterms and how we worked together with all of these groups to secure election resources.

Key takeaways from the 2022 midterm elections

For state and local governments protected under the Athenian Project

  • We protect 361 election websites in 31 states. This is a 31% increase since our reporting during the 2020 election.
  • Average daily application-layer attack volume against Athenian sites was only 3.4% higher in November through Election Day than it was in October.
  • From October 1 through November 8, 2022, government election sites experienced an average of 16,170,728 threats per day.
  • A majority of the threats to government election sites that Cloudflare mitigated in October 2022 were classified as HTTP anomaly, SQL injection, and software specific CVEs.

For political campaigns and state parties protected under Cloudflare for Campaigns

  • With our partnership with Defending Digital Campaigns, we protected 56 House campaigns, 15 political parties, and 34 Senate campaigns during the midterm elections.
  • Average daily application-layer attack volume against campaign sites was over 3x higher in November through Election Day than it was in October.
  • From October 1 through November 8, 2022, political campaign and state party sites saw an average of 149,949 threats per day.
  • HTTP anomaly, SQL injection, and directory traversal were the most active categories for mitigated requests against campaign sites in October.

Risks to online election groups as we approached the midterms

In preparation for the midterms, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and CISA put out a variety of public service announcements calling attention to cyber election risks, like DDoS attacks, and providing reassurance that cyber attacks were “unlikely to result in large-scale disruptions or prevent voting.” Earlier this year, the FBI issued a warning on phishing attempts, with details about a seemingly organized plot to steal election officials’ credentials via an email with a fake invoice attached.

We also saw some threat actors announce plans to target the midterm elections. Killnet, a pro-Russia hacking group, targeted US state websites, successfully taking the public-facing websites of a number of states temporarily offline. Hacking groups will target public-facing government websites to promote mistrust in the democratic process.

Voting authorities face challenges unrelated to malicious activity, too. Without the proper tools in place, traffic spikes during election season can impede voters’ ability to access information about polling places, registration, and results. During the 2020 US election, we saw 4x traffic spikes to government elections sites.

On the political organizing side, political campaigns and state parties increasingly rely on the Internet and their web presence to issue policy stances, raise donations, and organize their campaign operations. In October 2022, the FBI notified Republican and Democratic state parties that Chinese hackers were scanning party websites for vulnerabilities.

So, what happened during the 2022 US midterm elections?

As we prepared for the midterms, we had a team of engineers ready to assist state and local governments, campaigns, political parties, and voting rights organizations looking for help to protect their websites from cyber attacks. A majority of the threats that we saw and directly assisted on were before the election, especially in the wake of many advisories from federal agencies on Killnet’s targeting of US government sites.

During this time, we worked with CISA’s Joint Cyber Defense Collaborative (JCDC) to provide security briefings to state and local election officials and to make sure our free Enterprise services for state and local governments under the Athenian Project were part of JCDC’s Cybersecurity Toolkit to Protect Elections. We provided additional support in terms of webinars, security recommendations, and best practices to better prepare these groups for the midterms.

A week before the election, we worked with partners such as Defending Digital Campaigns to onboard many political campaigns and state parties to Cloudflare for Campaigns after seeing a number of campaigns come under DDoS attack. With this, we were able to accept 21 of the Senate Campaigns up for re-election, with an overall total of 34 Senate campaigns protected under the project.

Preparing for the next election

Being in the election space means working with local government, campaigns, state parties, and voting rights organizations to build trust. Democracies rely on access to information and trusted election results.

We accept applications to the Athenian Project all year long, not just during election season — learn how to apply. We look forward to providing more information on threats to these actors in the election space in the next few months to support their valuable work.

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Election Security

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Jocelyn Woolbright|@jo_woolbright

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