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State cyberspace protection units gear up for Election Day

By Capt. Hans Zeiger | 194th Wing, Washington Air National Guard | Nov. 5, 2018

JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash.—An elite cyberspace operations unit within the Washington Air National Guard is working in support of the state's Office of the Secretary of State through Election Day, Nov. 6, to help secure and protect the Washington State voting system.

Other Guard units, in states such as Wisconsin and Illinois, are also involved in ensuring election cybersecurity, according to information from those states. Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman entered an agreement with the Guard in July, kicking off a multi-step process in advance of the election. "It's an interactive process between their team and ours," said Lt. Col. Thomas Pries, commander of the 262nd Cyberspace Operations Squadron. "Our task is to go and say, "How can we make it even better than it is today?'"

Some of the service members who are involved work full-time for leading Pacific Northwest technology companies, while also serving in the 262nd Cyberspace Operations Squadron on a part-time basis and gaining expertise in securing cyberspace critical infrastructure.

It is the first time that the Washington Air National Guard has taken a role in helping to protect state elections. "We're assisting only," said Col. Kenneth Borchers, commander of the 252nd Cyberspace Operation Group, the parent organization of the 262nd Squadron. "We're providing advice on cyber security and risk mitigation for Secretary Wyman's office. This has very much been part of their routine. It's the latest in a long series of cyber assessments."

"The Guard has been amazing to work with, helping us to test our systems and helping us to strengthen our security," said Secretary of State Kim Wyman. The Guard's work has improved training and security awareness for elections officials, she said.

Borchers praised Wyman's office for "outstanding cooperation." It has been a "great partnership," said Pries.

Mission participants are helping Wyman to "raise the bar even more" in deterring adversaries, said Capt. Benjamin Kolar, a cyberspace operations officer in the 262nd. Kolar said that the Office of the Secretary of State has taken "an active approach" to strengthening the state's election systems.

The mission has unfolded in three parts—survey, secure, protect—according to Borchers and Pries.

The first stage was a two-week assessment in which Guard members "figured out what the networks look like," said Borchers. Members became familiar with the systems so they knew "what normal looks like," said Kolar. Based on this assessment, members were able to identify "some opportunities for improvement," said Pries.

The second stage also took place over a two-week period and focused on implementing system improvements, said Pries.

Stage three, now underway, is about identifying whether "we have any deeper problems," said Pries. "We call it the hunt mission. Now that we have situational awareness, we've secured terrain, we're going to do a deep dive and see what we can find." The goal is to allow the Secretary of State to give voters "an enhanced level of assurance that their vote will count as it is intended to be counted."

Election systems are recognized by the federal government as critical infrastructure systems under Presidential Policy Directive 21, along with other systems like government buildings, military installations, and sewer, water, electrical and traffic control systems.

Beyond elections, the 262nd has taken on a variety of federal and state critical infrastructure missions, including assessments of public utilities, military defense systems, and the energy delivery system in Antarctica. A group of Airmen from the 262nd recently traveled to Japan to support cyberspace operations for the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.

Members of the 262nd train for their mission on Air Force-funded simulators that mimic critical infrastructure systems. According to Lt. Col. Scott Howard, director of operations for the 262nd, operators train to assess electrical utilities to "see where power gets diverted" as they "interface with these training systems programmatically."

Pries hopes that his unit's work in support of the Washington Secretary of State will open the door for additional tasks in election security, "opportunities in the future to build on what we've done today," he said.

In accordance with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's Executive Order #312 issued Nov. 2, Maj. Gen. Donald Dunbar, the state adjutant general, has placed Wisconsin National Guard cyber response teams on standby. The teams are prepared to assist local and state election officials in the event of a cyber-security incident during the elections. Federal and state officials stress there is no active threat, these are precautionary measures.

"Wisconsin voters should feel confident that the Wisconsin National Guard's team is ready if needed to provide assistance on Election Day," said Dunbar. "The governor's executive order simply allows us to deploy those resources quickly."