CISA Officials See ‘No Malicious Activity’ During Super Tuesday

Voters cast ballots on the Super Tuesday at a voting center in Alhambra, Calif., March 3.

Voters cast ballots on the Super Tuesday at a voting center in Alhambra, Calif., March 3. Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP

Subsequent information could change the analysis but the agency does not currently attribute technical hiccups in some states to interference.  

As results rolled in on Super Tuesday, senior officials from the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency said primary elections happening across the country were free from any sign of foreign interference. 

Super Tuesday was a significant test of the agency’s efforts to secure election systems following reports from the intelligence community of Russian interference during the 2016 election. 

During a call with reporters after polls closed, senior CISA officials said some states—Minnesota, California and Texas—experienced a few technical issues but that those were not associated with any malicious activity and that all systems were back up and running.

Officials said there were three different backend systems involved, some provided by managed service providers, or cloud service providers, others in-house. 

“We talked directly, in the case of one state, the managed service provider, the cloud security provider that was providing the hosting infrastructure, the voter [registration] database and the voter lookup tool and confirmed directly with them that there's no appearance of any malicious activity,” one official said. “We're talking about very high speed, capable security teams at these organizations.”

The official added: “We could get additional information down the road that could lead us to a different conclusion, but I think we're pretty comfortable with where we sit right now in terms of no malicious activity.” 

“In some cases, they were simply load issues over demand that exceeded perhaps what they expected today, which could indicate any number of things, including higher turnout than expected,” one official said. 

The official credited CISA’s voter education efforts noting “it really does speak to this not being about 100% security but about voter resilience.” 

Earlier in the day, CISA officials briefing reporters stressed the importance of public education in addition to robust information-sharing capabilities.

The leading takeaway from 2016 was that the federal government’s lack of communication didn’t give states a chance to prepare for attempts by Russian government entities to infiltrate voting systems. 

Russia was also working to undermine public confidence in the democratic system at large by promoting discord through disinformation campaigns on social media, intelligence agencies said. 

CISA’s efforts leading up today’s primary elections in a majority of states chiefly included setting up the infrastructure to quickly disseminate information back and forth, and educating the public on the disinformation campaigns.

“We are at a heightened state of operational readiness,” the senior CISA official said. “We've been in that posture since early January. We're sitting with our federal, state and local, and private sector partners in both classified and unclassified operation centers here in Arlington, Virginia.”

The operation centers include representatives from the political parties, election technology companies and social media companies, according to the official.

In addition to the 24/7 operation centers, CISA established regional teams that have close relationships with state and local officials around the country to report information to the central watch teams.

A national cybersecurity situational awareness room—an online portal for state and local officials as well as election equipment vendors—shares information with those at the main operations center.

The senior CISA official highlighted tools the agency deployed “with the ability to load up those sensors with signatures of known bad adversary infrastructure and detect activities,” and noted more key battleground states are using voting machines that have a paper back up.

"We've been preparing for this day and this year for quite some time now,” the official said, adding, “it’s important to remember that on election day, bad things happen, hiccups happen.”

On the disinformation side, the official stressed there has been “no acute spike” in observable efforts on Super Tuesday beyond the chronic low-level activity officials referenced in a joint statement Monday.

Asked what metrics the agency is using to determine whether its efforts to educate the public are making a difference, the official acknowledged this is difficult to do. 

“Metrics in this space…it’s hard to measure things that don’t happen,” the official said. “It’s a great question.”