Two years ago, Cloudflare launched its Athenian Project, an effort to protect state and local government election websites from cyber attacks. With the two-year anniversary and many 2020 elections approaching, we are renewing our commitment to provide Cloudflare’s highest level of services for free to protect election websites and ensure the preservation of these critical infrastructure sites. We started the project at Cloudflare as it directly aligns with our mission: to help build a better Internet. We believe the Internet plays a helpful role in democracy and ensuring constituents’ right to information. By helping state and local government election websites, we ensure the protection of voters’ voices, preserve citizens’ confidence in the democratic process, and enhance voter participation.
We are currently helping 156 local or state websites in 26 states to combat DDoS attacks, SQL injections, and many other hostile attempts to threaten their operations. This is an additional 34 domains in states like Ohio, Florida, Kansas, South Carolina and Wisconsin since we reported statistics after last year’s election.
The need for security protection of critical election infrastructure is not new, but it is in the spotlight again as the 2020 U.S. elections approach, with the President, 435 seats in the U.S House of Representatives, 35 of the 100 seats in the U.S. Senate, and many state and local representatives on the ballot. According to the Department of Homeland Security and Federal Bureau of Investigations, election infrastructure in all 50 states was targeted during the 2016 presidential election. The risk is real. Florida counties suffered a spearfishing attack that gave hackers access to the voter registration rolls, and a Tennessee county website was knocked offline on election night and had to resort to handing out printed election vote counts.
Although the U.S government has sought to combat malicious actors that target election infrastructure, with Congress approving funding of $250 million for states in the administering and security of U.S elections in September 2019, there is always more to be done. As states rapidly prepare for the upcoming elections, the need for inexpensive, accessible solutions to protect election infrastructure are at an all-time high. As Micah Van Maanen, the Information Technology Director for Sioux County, Iowa, put it:
At Cloudflare, we believe it is vital to the national interest that elections are secure and free from interference as these fundamentals are essential to United States democracy. In these two years, we have learned a great deal about government election offices all across the U.S, the spread of information and resources available to them, and the small number of people it takes to make an impact in the protection of election infrastructure.
We still have more to learn to ensure the protection of these critical sites and understanding how we can better prepare state and local election websites for the upcoming elections. As we look into the future of the project in upcoming years, it is important to also look at the past.
Stories from the Field:
The jurisdictions that are using Cloudflare to protect their election websites are diverse, with state and local governments representing a range of populations from over 1.2 million residents to fewer than 5,000 residents.
In Ohio, the Secretary of State released their yearly state directive in June 2018 and 2019, to all counties in Ohio Board of Elections on tools, resources and best cybersecurity practices to strengthen the security of their election system. The Athenian Project was recommended and encouraged in both directives for the DDoS protection, Web Application Firewall, Rate Limiting, Under Attack Mode and 24/7 support. During this past year- we have on-boarded 13 counties in Ohio with a total of 27 domains protected under Cloudflare. In the directive, Ohio plans to become the leader in best practices in the security of elections systems and we are happy to be aiding in this mission.
The Idaho Secretary of State joined the Athenian Project at the beginning of 2018 and Chad Houck, Idaho’s Chief Deputy Secretary of State, engaged with our team on how exactly the Secretary of State could benefit from Cloudflare services.
On May 11, 2018, two of Idaho’s state agency websites were defaced by an anti-government group that posted a manifesto in Italian. After receiving notifications from many different sources regarding the security breach and following several inquiries from the press regarding the matter, Chad decided to look at the Idaho Secretary of State Cloudflare account to see if there was any evidence of the same hackers trying to penetrate the IDSOS site. Using Cloudflare’s analytic tools, he was able to see 27,000 blocked requests, up from the normal 240 per day, within the same 3.5-hour window that saw the other sites defaced. Cloudflare's Web Application Firewall had automatically blocked the bad requests that attempted to penetrate the site.
Confident in the value of Cloudflare’s tools, Deputy Secretary Houck’s plan is to create policies of operation that assist Idaho’s 44 counties in protecting their election websites and statewide voter registration systems. “With the first two counties already on board for a pilot, our goal is to be the first state to reach 100% county adoption of the Athenian Project tools.”
Understanding the U.S. Electoral System & Athenian Project Expansion:
The United States election system is fragmented and varies greatly from state to state. In some states, the administration of elections is covered by the state government and, in others, by counties or local municipalities. This system is decentralized, meaning that each state and local government has control over how the various duties of elections are distributed. According to the National Conference of State Legislators, “there are more than 10,000 election administration jurisdictions in the U.S. The size of these jurisdictions varies dramatically.” This means the voting experience differs from county to county, and from state to state.
This system fragmentation has been a challenge for the Athenian project. In the process, we have learned that state and local government election offices range on technical abilities and funding. With this in mind, our teams at Cloudflare are looking into new ways to engage the community. Among our efforts, we aim to interact with election security information sharing centers that provide recommendations and resources for election infrastructure to strengthen cybersecurity practices. Doing this helps state and local entities prepare for the upcoming election.
As we have a year until the 2020 election, we are thinking of how we engage with our current Athenian participants and expand access to Cloudflare services to new states and counties within the United States that might benefit from the Athenian Project. A key aspect that we have learned in this process is that the security of election websites sits with a small group of dedicated government officials that have found each other and built their own networks to share best cybersecurity practices.
In response to my question to Athenian participants in the onboarding process about how they discovered the project and Cloudflare, many of the answers I receive are similar: they heard about the project from another county, neighboring state, or information sharing centers that recommend using Cloudflare services as an extra layer of protection on their election infrastructure. Rodney Allen, the Executive Director for the Board of Voter Registration & Elections of Pickens County, South Carolina says that “the great thing about the Athenian Project is that Pickens County Board of Elections site has not experienced any downtime or outages thanks to Cloudflare, especially during South Carolina's 2018 general election and special elections in 2019."
As we set our sights for the 2020 election, we are happy to help provide these state and local governments with the tools they need to protect their election websites. If you run a state or local election website, feel free to reach out through our webform or read more about how our Athenian Project can help secure your online presence.