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Small Measures Yield Big Improvements in Virginia Election Security

Virginia voters can cast their votes with even more confidence this election season thanks to efforts from Virginia Cyber Navigator interns. In Southwest Virginia, for example, two Virginia Tech undergraduates worked with the local voter registrar to improve the locality’s security score by more than 10 percent.

Cyber navigators in Wise County

As part of this multi-university internship program led by Commonwealth Cyber Initiative researchers, 38 students from six universities worked with localities across the commonwealth to beef up the security of election infrastructure. After completing the required coursework and a two-day bootcamp, Virginia Tech senior Sam Kennedy and Jake Slusher ’23, both business information technology majors, were then deployed to the Wise County locality.

At the beginning of the summer, Wise County’s election security score was a strong 71 percent — but, working with the Wise County Office of the General Registrar and information technology team, the students identified areas for improvement.

“The interns helped implement our first countywide security awareness program,” said Wes Arney, the county’s director of information technology. “Great impact.”

In addition, the interns assisted in creating an incident response plan, and contacted the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency to set up regular vulnerability risk assessments and scans.

Why is election security important?

“When you have the perception that your vote doesn’t count or that voting is irrelevant, it tears at the fabric of any democratic republic,” said Justin Monday who leads the Virginia Tech arm of the Cyber Navigator program

Voting machines are not tied to a live network at any point, which lowers the threat level of ransomware or malware, Monday said. But that doesn’t mean somebody can’t physically access the server room and manipulate or extract voter information, for instance.

“Not surprisingly, a locality can vastly improve their security through something as simple as locking their server room door,” said Monday, assistant professor of practice in business information technology in the Pamplin College of Business.

 Ut Prosim in election season

When the students submitted their report at the end of the internship, Wise County’s elections were more than 10 percent more secure. They also left a checklist of additional measures to get the locality up to 100 percent.

“What we did over the summer improved the security posture of the elections, and therefore the election in general is more secure,” Kennedy said. “I feel pretty good about that.”

The Cyber Navigator program

Launched in 2021 in partnership with the Virginia Department of Elections, the Cyber Navigator program was created with a National Center for Academic Excellence grant and received additional support from the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative. In this program, Virginia Tech joins the University of Virginia as well as Virginia Commonwealth University, James Madison University, and George Mason University to train future cybersecurity professional to protect election infrastructure.

– Lindsey Haugh

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