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How Colorado Is Preparing for Election Night Disinformation

Bracing for a potential swell in foreign interference, the Centennial State has brought on a new team of national security experts to monitor and mitigate potential threats against county election systems.

by / October 9, 2020
Shutterstock/Dmytro Tyshchenko

Disinformation has made what was already a troublesome year that much worse for public agencies, frequently helping to undermine confidence in government at times when it was needed the most.

Now, as states scramble to secure their counties' election defenses in the run up to the Nov. 3rd presidential election, experts have expressed fear that online campaigns will likely seek to confuse voters and discredit the democratic process. 

One such expert, Nate Blumenthal, believes the threat is grave. As head of a new disinformation-focused cyber unit put together by the Colorado Secretary of State's office, Blumenthal has some credibility in this department. 

"I think this is one of the biggest national security threats our country has faced in decades," he said, speaking with Government Technology.

Indeed, earlier this year online campaigns showed their power, causing chaos during the initial outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and, later, amid the social unrest that accompanied nationwide protests centered on police brutality and misconduct. The results could be so much worse when directed towards the presidential race, critics have argued.  

Among its peers, Colorado has been more vocal than others about this threat. Secretary of State Jena Griswold has made numerous public pronouncements about disinformation and recently appeared before the House Subcommittee on Elections where she called combatting disinformation a "critical component to ensuring the integrity of our electoral process." 

Her new Rapid Response Election Security Cyber Unit (RESCU) seeks to act as an institutional firewall in that regard. Created in July through grant funding from the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), RESCU has been tasked with protecting "Colorado’s elections from cyberattacks, foreign interference, and disinformation campaigns." This will entail assisting counties with proper cybersecurity practices, while also working to prevent both "cybersecurity incursions and disinformation."

The five-person team is staffed with cybersecurity experts with significant backgrounds in national security — most notably Blumenthal who, prior to RESCU, spent a long career in counterterrorism at the likes of the Department of Defense (DoD), Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and the National Security Council.

Over the last several years, Blumenthal pivoted to federal cybersecurity, serving as the senior adviser to the director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and other prominent positions within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

"We know very clearly that foreign adversaries want to undermine all Americans, regardless of where you live or what party you are part of," said Blumenthal. "They want to take away your confidence in the system. That is relatively cheap and easy to do. At the end of the day, if Americans from all walks of life begin to doubt the process by which we govern ourselves, then where the heck do we end up?" 

RESCU, which will seek to promote accurate information and narratives while combatting fake ones, is just one part of Colorado's overall strategy to defend election integrity, said Trevor Timmons, CIO for Griswold's office. 

"We've been working pretty hard to make sure that our elections are safe, secure and fair," he said, explaining that his office has longstanding ties to county election officials and their IT and cybersecurity teams. 

In this context, a big part of combatting disinformation is threat sharing and effective stakeholder engagement, Timmons went on. The state's fusion center, the Colorado Information Analysis Center (CIAC), acts as an intelligence nexus where different government entities, including RESCU and the SoS office, can swiftly receive and trade information about potential threats. Sometimes the information being traded is quite sensitive, but Timmons' staff is prepared for this.   

"We have individuals in our offices that have clearances at the secret level, so that we can have conversations with DHS, FBI, with ODNI, so that we can get that information, even before it may have been declassified and made available publicly. We're able to get that information and just sort of factor it into how we think about things," he said.

At the same time, Timmons' office also works together with Colorado CISO Deborah Blyth's office, as well as the state's Homeland Security Advisory Committee, which focuses on cybersecurity, information sharing and threat response. All of Colorado's counties also have contacts with the Center for Internet Security's EI-ISAC, which helps state, local, tribal and territorial entities (SLTTs) share and receive declassified threat intelligence related to elections. 

Thinking long term, Blumenthal said he thinks that disinformation needs to be treated as a serious problem — one deserving of critical, nonpartisan consideration.

"I think our country should come together, hopefully [via] some sort of bipartisan commission, similar perhaps to the 9/11 commission — but this time including state government folks to create recommendations to address this threat," he said. 

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Lucas Ropek Staff Writer

Lucas Ropek is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has worked as a newspaper reporter and writer in Massachusetts and New York. He received his Bachelor's degree in English from Kenyon College in Ohio. He lives in Northern California.

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