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Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen NASS Conference Remarks: As Prepared For Delivery

Release Date: 
July 16, 2018

Introduction

Thank you Secretary of State Lawson for that kind introduction. You and Director Bob Giles have been outstanding partners in the Department’s election security efforts.  I want to thank you for pushing our partnership forward, and for organizing this important conference.

I also wanted to take this opportunity to thank Acting Assistant Secretary Bob Kolasky, Matt Masterson, Geoff Hale and all of the DHS personnel who have worked tirelessly in partnership with you to improve the security and resilience of our election infrastructure.

It is a pleasure to be here in Philadelphia—the birthplace of America—to discuss our efforts to secure our nation’s election systems.

Free and fair elections are the cornerstone of our democracy. They are at the core of the freedoms we are all guaranteed. And it has become clear that they are a target of our adversaries who seek to sow discord and undermine our way of life.  As I see it, election security is national security.

Our constitution vests incredible responsibility in you: Administering the complex machinery of our democracy. You are the guardians of these critical systems, and I want to thank you for the hard work you do year round to ensure that—come Election Day—we are ready.

Following the 2016 elections, the security of our election infrastructure was thrust into the spotlight.

Once it became clear that Russian actors attempted to target our elections, America wanted action.

There was a lot of confusion about what happened, with many unfortunately trying to politicize the issue. Mischaracterized, misunderstood, and blatantly false information was floating around, but the fact is—and this bears repeating—no votes were altered.

What we did see, though, is without a question concerning: Russian government cyber actors seeking vulnerabilities and access to U.S. election infrastructure.

We assume Russia’s campaign targeted all fifty states, but in the vast majority of cases, only preparatory activity, such as scanning or basic research, was observed. In an exceptionally small number of cases, actors were able to access the system.

Though votes were not changed, ANY attempt to interfere in our elections—successful or unsuccessful—is a direct attack on our democracy, and is unacceptable.

Yesterday’s indictments against the Russian intelligence officers are a demonstration that we will not tolerate interference with our democratic processes and that there will be consequences for foreign meddling. 

On a side note, it seems that each time these two groups get together another round of indictments is announced.  

One of my top priorities has been, and remains, to enhance the resilience of our nation’s election infrastructure.

To do that, our focus is on supporting you by sharing actionable intelligence information, providing technical assistance, developing and sharing best practices and guidance, and maturing our partnerships to enhance our collective security efforts.

In response to the Russian interference attempts in the 2016 elections, and the expectation that they or others will attempt to interfere again, DHS has worked closely with state and local election officials across the country to better prepare and secure our systems.

We want each person to cast their vote with confidence that their vote counts and will be counted correctly, and we are all working diligently to achieve that goal.

 

Roadmap

Today, I am glad to be here to highlight the progress we have made since the 2016 elections, and discuss ways in which the Federal

Government will continue to support you.

 

DHS Role

Election security is a vital national security issue, and we share the understanding of the very real threat that election meddling poses to the foundation of our democracy.

Collectively, we learned a lot of valuable lessons in 2016, and I’m glad to report that we are miles from where we were then. Miles towards increased security and resilience.

In January of last year, DHS designated our nation’s election infrastructure to be critical infrastructure. This allowed us to prioritize resources to stakeholders and formalized some of the collaboration we now have in place. 

As is the case with our critical infrastructure partners in other sectors, collaboration is voluntary, it is not required.

You are the experts. You are the ones charged with administering America’s election process. And I am not here to tell you how to do your jobs.

I am here to let you know that DHS is here to help.

We play a supporting role, and we want to ensure that we are offering the support you need, when you need it, how you need it.

The election systems, processes, and procedures vary greatly across states, and even counties. And importantly—there is no one correct way to run an election in America. What works for the voters of Oregon may not work as well for the voters of Ohio or New York.

That’s why you are in charge—you know what works for your state or community.

What we bring to the table is a vast understanding of the threats, and how to guard against them.

Today, I’m pleased to announce that election officials from all 50 states are actively working with the Department of Homeland Security in some fashion.

Across our great nation, we have built relationships with our state partners to work together to guard our election systems against foreign adversaries and strengthen the resilience of our election infrastructure.

These partnerships are based on a trusted relationship of information sharing and support. DHS is committed to building on the progress we have made to ensure that election officials in all states have access to timely and actionable information as they work to protect their systems.

We work closely with the intelligence community to assess potential attacks against our election systems.  Right now, there are no indications that Russia is targeting the 2018 U.S. midterms at a scale or scope to match their activities in 2016.

Just like the activity targeting internet-connected systems in other sectors, however, we do consistently observe malicious cyber activity from various actors against U.S. election infrastructure.

Similarly, the IC is also observing persistent Russian efforts using social media, sympathetic spokespeople, and other fronts to sow discord and divisiveness amongst the American people – though not necessarily focused on specific politicians or political campaigns.

But let me be clear: there is little doubt that adversaries and non-state actors continue to view elections as a target for cyber and influence operations.  That alone is enough for us, collectively, to work together to ensure the continued resilience of our Nation’s election infrastructure.

As we gain new insights into potential adversaries and their efforts, we are committed to providing you the government’s best intelligence and information available.

And we will ensure that you, your staff, and other officials in your states, have the necessary support and tools to assess risk, protect your systems, and quickly recover should an attack happen.

Whether it’s offering no-cost, voluntary, technical assistance or sharing best practices for securing your IT systems, or providing technical advice on ransomware and destructive malware, our Department stands ready to provide tailored support based on YOUR requirements.

By empowering state and local election officials with information and assistance, we are creating a more resilient election system.

 

What We Offer

I know that during the course of your conference, DHS will provide you with details on the work we are doing and the support we are offering, but I wanted to reinforce the range of services we provide and encourage you to sign up.

With more than half of state primaries already behind us, each day brings us closer to another election, and time is of the essence.

Unlike many areas, there is no “scrubbing the launch” when it comes to elections. So when it’s show time—you must be prepared.

DHS actively promotes a range of services to help you identify weaknesses in your systems, such as our cyber hygiene service for internet-facing systems, as well as risk and vulnerability assessments.

We can also help to identify poorly configured voter registration databases, which could allow for unauthorized access to data.

Our services help to quickly identify areas of risk or vulnerability and empower you to mitigate them.

Many of you have taken advantage of the full range of these services, and for those who haven’t, these services remain available to you, and I encourage you take advantage of them as we head into the November midterm.

Together we have worked to setup an Election Infrastructure Information Sharing and Analysis Center. This center is providing your staff and other election officials with timely and actionable information to help protect your systems.

I am proud to say that all 50 states and over 800 hundred local jurisdictions have joined as members and are receiving this important information.

In addition, thanks to your partnership, we have more than quadrupled our awareness into election infrastructure via the Albert monitoring system operated by the Multi-State ISAC. These monitors allow DHS to receive real-time data flows from election networks to alert on possible incidents and provide tailored information sharing across the sector.

This coordination allows DHS to share the specific information relevant to election infrastructure quickly with the broader election community. This prioritization of highly tailored information is the same model used by other critical infrastructure sectors and is a tried and tested way of sharing information.

At the federal level, we have created an elections task force. The mission of the task force is to coordinate federal election security efforts and to ensure that information or intelligence is quickly shared with you all.

But our help goes beyond mitigating your risks and preparing for potential attacks—we also offer support in the event of an incident. We encourage election officials to report suspected malicious activity and—if requested—we are able to provide assistance in identifying solutions.

Further—we can share that information in an appropriate way with other states to help them guard against the same risk.

In leveraging as many resources and points of view as possible, DHS is working to ensure that that the message heard by state and local officials is clear and that the question of “Who do we call?” is answered.

These are only a few examples of our partnership with election officials where we are sharing information and DHS is providing services to ensure the continued security of our election systems.

 

Call to Action

While I am both proud of the work that has already been done, and encouraged by growing collaboration, our work is far from over. I urge you all to continue to make this a priority.

Before I conclude, I want to ask for your assistance in three areas:

First, get prepared and protected.  Don’t underestimate the abilities of our adversaries.  And don’t assume you won’t be affected by the next attempt.  I assure you, they learn and get better. 

Whether you seek assistance from DHS, private sector partners, or other state agencies—utilize the resources available to you.

I know many state and local officials choose to conduct their own security scans through a third-party, such as private sector partners or other state agencies, sometimes with input or recommendations from DHS.

Some states may only be receiving some assistance from DHS and others none at all, but by no means does that indicate their elections systems are not secure.

Just as there is no “correct way” to run an election, there is no “correct way” to secure them.

But—the incorrect way is to assume you can withstand a nation-state attacks on your own.  Let’s work together to protect America’s election systems.

Second, raise awareness with your partners and constituents.  Over the last year we have established relationships and built trust with election officials across this country.  But we can do more to get city and county officials prepared for the potential risks they face.  They are truly on the front lines, and we need your help to ensure that every jurisdiction has access to information and best practices, and knows who to call when they see a problem. 

You’ve heard about our Last Mile Initiative – I encourage you to take us up on this service and expand our reach into each and every county and locality.

As importantly, inform the citizens of your states about the work you are doing.  The more they understand what you are doing to secure election systems, the more confidence they will have in our elections.

Finally, build redundancy and resilience into your systems.  Our elections are too important for single points of failure.  We must have the ability to assure the American public that even if a disruption occurs, the results of the election are beyond question.

This means thoughtfully upgrading technology, knowing your vendors and ensuring that they are reliable and secure, and having the right personnel to bring it all together.

I am encouraged by the work that has been done on this to date by the Government Coordinating Council, but we have more work to do and the American people will expect more progress before the 2020 election.

 

Closing

Again, I want to thank you for the opportunity to speak with you all today.

In particular, I want to thank those of you in this room who are at the table working with us on the government coordinating council. This council has pushed forward quickly to establish a sector specific plan and create protocols that will ensure that information reaches down to state and local officials and back up to us at the federal level, ensuring a coordinated response to potential threats.

And finally, I want to thank Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson for her service and leadership on the executive committee of the council. She has been a driving force behind the progress that has been made, stewarding your rights as states to run elections while working with us to provide the needed level of support.

We stand ready to support election officials and provide assistance to make sure every eligible American is able to vote and their vote is counted correctly in 2018. We thank you for your important work and partnership in this critical mission.

The progress we have made is real, and the nation’s elections are more resilient today because of the work we are all doing.

With that, I look forward to answering your questions.

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Last Published Date: July 16, 2018
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