How Estonia Secures Its Electronic Elections From Kremlin Attacks

Hayden Szeto in front of the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral as he walks through the streets of Tallin Old Town on Monday, Nov. 21, 2016 in Tallinn, Estonia.

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Hayden Szeto in front of the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral as he walks through the streets of Tallin Old Town on Monday, Nov. 21, 2016 in Tallinn, Estonia.

Could innovations like a volunteer infosec corps and 'data embassies' help the U.S.?

Americans fret a lot about the threat of a crippling cyber attack. But the small European country of Estonia lived through one, a 2007 Kremlin-led effort to destabilize the country by attacking government websites. Yet the experience only strengthened Estonians resolve to extend digital service to its people, most notably electronic voting.

Just two years before Russia’s attack, Estonia began a pilot program that essentially allows its citizens to vote from home or work. To many Americans, this seems to promise a solution to increasingly common election-day problems: long lines, fewer polling places, uneven hours, etc. Some 25 U.S. states are experimenting with some form of e-voting for military service members. But most U.S. citizens can’t do it, despite polls showing a strong preference for it, particularly among young voters.

The Estonians haven’t had any major problems with e-voting, thanks to pioneering approaches to securing elections and keeping digital records that have made its government a best-practices showcase. But not all of them are easily transferable to the United States.

To begin, everybody in Estonia has a unique national identification number, similar to a social security number. “Your vote is tied to your personal Identification number but kept away from the prying eyes of politicians and election officials, unless there’s a certain incident where they have to see what happened in one precinct or another. In any case, it’s secure,” Erki Kodar, Undersecretary for Legal and Admin Affairs at the Estonian Defense Ministry, said during a recent visit to his country’s embassy in Washington, D.C.

That state-issued number works alongside a personal identification number chosen by each citizen. The two, together, form a lock and key relationship, authenticating one another.  You log into the system with your state ID number and your PIN. Result: there’s no question of whether someone should be disqualified because of a dubious signature discrepancy. Instead, an individual uses their secret PIN with their state ID number to verify who they are. “In the sense of your PIN number, that’s your digital signature,” said Kodar.

You might think that extending e-voting to the entire population would lead to far higher voter turnout, but that’s not so. An embassy official said turnout was equivalent to that in the United States, about 60 percent. (U.S. turnout was about 55 percent in 2016; turnout is generally lower in non-presidential years.) It also hasn’t shifted voting toward younger, more digitally active voters. Rather, older voters who otherwise might have trouble getting out to polling places are the most likely to vote electronically, at least in Estonia.

But what about that other type of election meddling that the Kremlin perpetrates: a constant flood of propaganda to sow discord, break civil unity, and misinform the public? The Estonians have a guard against that as well, although it might strike Americans—bathed in the cynicism of modern U.S. politics—as quaint.

In much the same way that the Ground Observer Corps watched the skies off of California and New Jersey for Japanese and German planes during WW II, so volunteers in Estonia’s Defense League watch the news and online discussions of it to determine what role Kremlin influence peddlers might be playing.

“They come from different fields of life in Estonia,” Kodar said. “They might be PR people, or data analysts, or have a capacity for infographics. And they use open source methods. They look at the Russian media’s view of Estonia, for example what kind of stories are there, and also what stories might have been planted in the Estonian media sphere. They track them back to how they started…to see if there’s an element of misinformation…These people are doing really good work. They’ve branched out to English and Russia.”

It’s the sort of thing that works in a close-knit country like Estonia, where the threat of Russian aggression is a uniting factor, but would likely be met with skepticism in the United States, in part because Kremlin propaganda has already had succeeded in driving wedges between so many citizens and their government and, in many cases, between citizens and reality.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials have taken some steps to prevent vote counts from being manipulated. A new National Cyber Strategy allows the Pentagon to conduct advanced reconnaissance on Russian networks and quickly retaliate for a massive attack like the 2007 one on Estonia.

If Pentagon and intelligence community watchers detected an imminent threat against U.S. infrastructure, including election systems, they could quickly respond. “As the Department of Defense, our job is to be able to disrupt or deny that capability before it has an effect on the U.S. our allies and partners,” Ed Wilson, the deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Cyber Policy, said at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace last week.

The Pentagon refers to this strategy, broadly, as “defend forward.” Said Wilson, “The checks and balances are now in place—we have authorities that are now in place with clear guidance—as to how we bring those options together, [and] if directed, execute those options.”

The U.S. had already conducted such digital reconnaissance operations, he said but added that deterring Russian interference was preferable to retaliating for it: “A cyber effects operation may be a last choice.”

Digital Embassies

Estonia also has a worst-case scenario plan, dubbed Data Embassies. In effect, they’ve backed up the entire country digitally and shipped the data to safe spots around the world. That way, in the event of an attack that destroys or manipulates voter records — the kind of thing Department of Homeland Security officials worry about — every individual’s government data can be brought back online to re-establish services.  

“We do have a plan of continuity so we can still vote. So we can extend services, preserve the relationships that we have, the business relationships,” said Mihkel Tikk, who leads the defense ministry’s cyber policy department.

Estonia established its first such data embassy in Luxembourg, under a 2016 agreement with that country. There are plans for more around the world. And of course, there’s nothing to keep them from storing data in their own actual embassies.

Back in the United States, DHS officials have said that they believe the country’s voting infrastructure is secure from attack after years of concerted efforts.

DHS has spent the last two years taking stock of the ways security around voting infrastructure could be improved, Undersecretary Jeanette Manfra said. One tangible product of that is the Multi-state Information Sharing and Analysis Center, aimed at helping even small and modestly-funded election bodies obtain threat data as rapidly as it becomes available.

Manfra said DHS has pushed to involve state and local cybersecurity officials, such as chief information officers, whom she called “sensors.”

In just two years … we have gone from where we had sensors in every single state—and some of those may or may not have been covering election systems—to where we have 90 percent of our election systems covered by these sensors…That’s a phenomenal amount of change. But it doesn’t mean you can see everything,” she said.

“It doesn’t necessarily tell us the Russians are coming.”

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