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Cybersecurity and COVID Challenge Election Preparations

The week in cybersecurity includes news about proposed changes to California’s privacy law, federal aid to protect schools from cyberattacks and calls for the police to stop partnering with Amazon’s Ring surveillance service.

Welcome to this week’s Future of Security newsletter. Let’s get started:

California has proposed strengthening its data privacy rules. The prior privacy law, known as the California Consumer Privacy Act, took effect in January.  While many have praised the law for taking the state in the right direction, digital rights groups have criticized those guidelines for being too weak. 

The new initiative, known as the California Privacy Rights Act, would add more teeth to existing legislation by creating a new, $10 million state agency dedicated to protecting online consumer privacy. It would also restrict the use of sensitive data — like someone’s sexual orientation, Social Security number or union membership — and would make location tracking less precise, among other changes.

A federal bill could boost school security against cyberattacks. A new proposal at the federal level would create millions of dollars in new funding for cybersecurity protections for school districts. Schools have been an increasingly popular target for cybercriminals. 

Last week, U.S. Rep. Josh Harder, D-Calif., announced that he would soon introduce the Protecting Students from Cybercrimes Act, which would allocate $25 million in federal grants to U.S. schools over a five-year period for the purposes of hardening  cybersecurity infrastructure.

Cybersecurity and the pandemic present significant challenges to election preparations. In recent months, American adversaries have stepped up both cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns. Election officials should expect them to take advantage of the logistical challenges of voting in a COVID-19 world.

With only five months before the presidential election, they are scouting larger polling places to enable social distancing and planning to mail and scan more absentee and mail-in ballots than ever. But in addition to keeping poll workers and voters safe from viral transmission, there is a second major risk: how to keep the election itself secure from cyberthreats. 

The cyberthreats to voting systems have not diminished. Election officials must continue to safeguard their IT infrastructure. Voter registration databases, electronic pollbooks used to check in voters, websites publishing vital information about changes to voting processes — all these need to be kept secure. States are likely to need yet more federal funding, particularly given that most states will have to balance their budgets even as tax revenues crater this year.

Police ties to Ring home surveillance come under scrutiny. Amid nationwide protests against police abuses against black people, some civil liberties advocates are calling for Amazon to stop its partnerships with law enforcement agencies through its Ring home surveillance cameras.

“These camera registries will only serve to exacerbate existing forms of discrimination that are rampant within policing and the criminal justice system,” said Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future, a civil rights advocacy nonprofit focused on technology.

“They speed up and automate police procedures in ways that mean communities that are already overpoliced will be subject to even more law enforcement repression.”

Amazon last week placed a one-year moratorium on police use of its facial recognition technology, a move widely viewed as a response to the protests, though Amazon stopped short of saying so. Ring did not respond to a Stateline request for comment about whether it’s re-evaluating its work with police, which includes asking residents to provide video when there's been a crime.

Tod is the editor of Governing . Previously, he was the senior editor at Government Technology and the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for IT executives in the public sector, and is the author of several books on information management.
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