National Guard Cyber Teams to Defend States From Election Hacking

In addition to National Guard troops (out of uniform) supplementing volunteers diminished by COVID restrictions at various polling places in New Jersey and Kentucky, other more specialized Guard units are also gearing up to defend the elections. The state of Colorado is a case in point.

Colorado has a strong partnership with the Colorado National Guard – dating back to 2013 – to protect critical electronic voting infrastructure in the state. “When we are in the COVID-19 crisis, there is a tendency to drop the ball on the fact that Russia is actively trying to undermine our democracy,” said Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold.

A Senate Intelligence Committee report last year concluded Russia targeted voting systems in all 50 states in 2016. While the report did not say the Russian effort was in any way successful, we should not deny that the Russians are trying, as are other bad actors – including China. This should not be a partisan issue.

“Our partnership with the National Guard is just one of many things we do to make sure Coloradans can have confidence in our election results,” Griswold said, reported KPBS news.

Col. George Haynes, chief of cyber operations at the National Guard Bureau in Washington, D.C. helps coordinate the National Guard’s election cyber security resources. KPBS reported Haynes as saying, “The cyber domain is maturing, just like the other air-land-sea-space domains.”

Haynes added that “We have seen an increase in partnerships, an increase in information sharing, an increase in working together through table-top exercises, through sharing of tactics, techniques, and procedures.” The Colorado National Guard’s six-member election support team has members with civilian backgrounds in programming, IT, corporate security, and related fields.

“Almost everyone on my team has a day-to-day job that we do this full time,” said Captain Reece Watkins, cyber-network defense manager for the team, according to KPBS. “So it helps us stay in the current workforce and know exactly what’s happening in real life.”

KPBS also reported that “Watkins said that it helps that guard members are used to operating in the private sector, not just on the heavily-protected systems used by the military.” To be clear though, it’s not the National Guard team’s job to fight the online threats, “just to find them.” KPBS explains:

That can be anything from someone spreading misinformation on social media to direct attacks on the state’s crucial voter registration database. If they spot something, they pass it on to Colorado’s own IT professionals to address. They also review the elections systems themselves for vulnerabilities.

Protecting the integrity of US elections at the state level is an important national security issue. Using the state National Guard is an innovative, and decentralized, way to use military expertise and assets to achieve the desired results.

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Paul Crespo

Paul Crespo is the Managing Editor of American Defense News. A defense and national security expert, he served as a Marine Corps officer and as a military attaché with the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) at US embassies worldwide. Paul holds degrees from Georgetown, London, and Cambridge Universities. He is also CEO of SPECTRE Global Risk, a security advisory firm, and President of the Center for American Defense Studies, a national security think tank.

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