How U.S. Cyber Command, NSA are defending midterms elections: One team, one fight

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  • By Cyber National Mission Force Public Affairs; National Security Agency Public Affairs

With 75 days until the midterm elections, the Dept. of Defense is fully engaged to defend the U.S. electoral system from foreign interference and foreign influence alongside interagency partners.

"This is an enduring, no-fail mission for U.S. Cyber Command and the National Security Agency, who bring unique insights and actions to the whole-of-government effort," said U.S. Army Gen. Paul M. Nakasone, Commander of USCYBERCOM and Director of NSA/Chief, Central Security Service.

"Together, we bring speed and unity of effort against any foreign adversary who might seek to undermine our democratic institutions."

The joint USCYBERCOM-NSA Election Security Group, stood up again in early 2022, aligns both organizations' efforts to disrupt, deter, and degrade foreign adversaries' ability to interfere with and influence how U.S. citizens vote and how those votes are counted.

The group spearheads the Dept. of Defense's efforts, and is co-led by U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Victor Macias, USCYBERCOM's co-lead and Deputy Commander of Cyber National Mission Force, and Ms. Anna Horrigan, NSA's Senior Executive and Election Security co-Lead.

"The ESG team is comprised of some of the best and brightest in this field," said Horrigan. "We are building on previous successes, while also maximizing our strong relationships and synchronizing often - enabling the U.S. to respond rapidly to election threats."

The ESG's primary objectives are to generate insights on foreign adversaries who may interfere with or influence elections, bolster domestic defense by sharing information with interagency, industry, and allied partners, and impose costs on foreign actors who seek to undermine democratic processes.

As in in previous election cycles, USCYBERCOM and NSA are closely partnered across the government and industry, and are one critical component of a whole-of-government effort. The group directly supports partners like the Dept. of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation collecting, declassifying, and sharing vital information about foreign adversaries to enable domestic efforts in election security.

However, the ESG plays a unique role in combatting and disrupting adversary activity in this space-NSA's unique foreign intelligence collection and technical expertise can provide insight into adversary plans and cyber tradecraft, while USCYBERCOM's full-spectrum cyber operations can defend and disrupt malicious cyber actors.

"The biggest success of the last two election cycles wasn't just the defense of our democratic processes from foreign influence and interference," said Macias. "It is also the organizational focus on this enduring mission, the partnerships created and the people who come to work every day to defend our Nation's elections from foreign adversaries."

For example, if the ESG sees a cyberattack occurring in foreign space, it could communicate that information to domestic agencies to mitigate the issue, and use its offensive cyber authorities to disrupt and degrade that foreign cyber actor's operations.

Election security was deemed a critical infrastructure component in 2017 by DHS.

The U.S. government is actively defending against foreign interference and influence operations in U.S. elections, specifically by focusing on how adversaries seek to undermine U.S. interests and prosperity, the will to vote of the populace, as well as their belief in the sanctity and security of their elections.

According to the Office of Director of National Intelligence, Russia, China, Iran and other foreign malicious actors may seek to interfere in U.S. voting processes and influence voter perception. Such foreign activity can threaten to undermine fundamental principles of U.S. democracy and influence U.S. public sentiment.

"In the complex cyberspace domain we operate in, we have to consider both the adversary threat landscape-- and the scale of technological advancements," Macias said. "These adversaries use discrete cyber operations to achieve their strategic objectives, and operate below the threshold of armed conflict. It's our job to disrupt them."

Another key component of election defense is partnership- not just with interagency partners like DHS and FBI, but also with the private sector and U.S. allies and partners.

Leveraging on past successes, the ESG has increased its whole-of-society engagement with industry to share threats and potential vulnerabilities. 

"Successful defense against threats to elections requires robust relationships that include information and intelligence exchanges across both public and private sectors," Horrigan said. "We can't just watch our adversaries- we have to do something about it, whether sharing timely information, or taking action against that actor. Our nation expects that of us."