Nielsen: DHS to quicken bad actor alerts in run-up to Election Day

The Department of Homeland Security will be much faster to alert state officials if their computer networks are being probed by hackers this election season than the department was in 2016, DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said Tuesday.

It took roughly a year for DHS to notify officials in 21 states that their IT systems had been scanned by Russian hackers during the 2016 presidential campaign. But a combination of network sensors, incident response teams, and closer relationships with state and local officials means DHS can react much more quickly to threats during the 2018 midterms, according to Nielsen.

“Now we know who to call,” she said at a conference hosted by The Washington Post, referring to state and local officials. “Now we have everybody on speed dial.”

This year, the department will have a “situational awareness room” ready to monitor developments at DHS’s National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center, Nielsen said. DHS is also “pre-deploying” incident response teams before Election Day “so that should there be any concern, we’ll be there to support our partners if they need it,” she added.

The DHS chief also touted progress made in passing on threat information to state and local officials. “We’re pulling more, collecting from the intel community,” she said, adding that the process is “quicker, faster, and more tailored.”

The Elections Infrastructure Information Sharing and Analysis Center, announced in March, has over 1,000 participants, making it the “fastest-growing ISAC we have ever seen,” Nielsen said. “I think that shows that we have overcome the trust deficit that perhaps existed in some relationships at the beginning” between federal and state and local officials, she added.

Congress in March allocated $380 million to states to improve their election security, money that experts say isn’t nearly enough to comprehensively address the challenge. Nielsen said state officials should raise the issue with lawmakers if need be. “If the states need more money, they should absolutely go to Congress and ask for money.”