WASHINGTON — Election security wasn't a mission initially envisioned for the Department of Homeland Security, the sprawling department creating after the Sept. 11 attacks. But it's now one of the highest priorities, Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said Wednesday.
Nielsen said in a speech the department must adapt as threats change — and right now, the biggest threats are coming online from malicious "nation-states" seeking to disrupt democracy.
"DHS was founded 15 years ago to prevent another 9/11," she said. "I believe an attack of that magnitude is now more likely to reach us online than on an airplane."
The department is tasked with helping states to protect election infrastructure — which includes any potential cyber threats, and the Trump administration has been criticized for not doing enough ahead of the upcoming elections.
The U.S. intelligence community has said Russia had tried to influence the 2016 election to benefit Trump. Officials have not detected any attempts to corrupt election systems or leak information rivaling that effort.
But there has been serious online targeting of the political system, mostly on three fronts — efforts to get inside political campaigns and institutions and expose damaging information; probes of electoral systems, potentially to alter voter data and results; and fake ads and accounts on social media used to spread disinformation and fan divisions among Americans.
In recent weeks, Microsoft reported that it had disabled six Russian-launched websites masquerading as U.S. think tanks and Senate sites. Facebook and the security firm FireEye revealed influence campaigns, originating in Iran and Russia, that led the social network to remove 652 impostor accounts, some targeted at Americans. The office of Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania said hackers tied to a nation-state had sent phishing emails to old campaign email accounts.
"Cyberattacks now exceed the risk of physical attacks," Nielsen said at a speech to some of the 240,000-person department also responsible for natural disasters and immigration. "Don't get me wrong: Terrorists, criminals, and foreign adversaries continue to threaten the physical security of our people. But cyberspace is now the most active battlefield, and the attack surface extends into every single American home."
In order to succeed, Nielsen said, private companies must get better involved in security and information sharing, Congress must give Homeland Security the tools to better organize cybersecurity efforts, and states need to have auditable election systems to show that votes were not tampered.
Nielsen's comments came as Facebook and Twitter executives defending their companies on Capitol Hill, saying they are trying to root out foreign interests seeking to create discord as the November elections near. Facebook's No. 2 executive, Sheryl Sandberg, and Twitter's CEO, Jack Dorsey, testified before the Senate intelligence committee, but there was an empty chair in place for Google's parent Alphabet, which refused to send its top executive.