Entrepreneurs and experts gather for bwtech@UMBC Cybertini event on election security

Nearly 100 industry experts and entrepreneurs gathered virtually for Cybertini 2020, hosted by bwtech@UMBC, UMBC’s research and technology park, on October 15. The annual event offers a unique opportunity for entrepreneurs to learn from industry professionals and experts in academia, and this year focused on cybersecurity related to elections. This is the second of three Cybertini events scheduled for this year.

UMBC’s Rick Forno, assistant director of the UMBC Center for Cybersecurity, joined Ron Gula, president of Gula Tech Adventures, and Sarah Lenti, executive director of the Lincoln Project, for the panel discussion. In the context of a highly contentious 2020 U.S. election season, panelists shared their perspectives on the particular cybersecurity challenges the U.S. electoral system faces today. 

Gula grounded the conversation with a key point: that elections are now considered to be part of critical infrastructure, but that challenges to its security are unique. Megan Wahler, director of entrepreneurial services at bwtech@UMBC, moderated the event. 

Continuous attention to security

Forno and Gula both argued that it’s important to continuously look at the security of information sharing broadly, rather than focusing on security when an election comes around. 

Man standing in front of wood paneled wall.
Rick Forno. Photo by Marlayna Demond ‘11 for UMBC.

“I think you don’t look at it in the context of securing an election,” said Forno. “I think you need to look at it as securing an information ecosystem over time, not just every two or four years.” This means there will always be a need for expertise and innovations related to securing information, he noted. 

Gula similarly emphasized that it is important for leaders to take cyber hygiene and data security seriously in order to protect companies, governments, and elections from vulnerabilities in the long term. “If we can educate [people running for office] before they get into office, then they’re going to make better cyber policy decisions for all of us,” he said. 

Electronic voting and misinformation

The speakers also discussed how to ensure the security of future electronic voting platforms, a particularly hot-button issue in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Gula explained that it’s possible to develop a secure electronic voting system, but that this security might be dependent on maintaining a paper trail. Forno cautioned that the U.S. electoral system also poses particular challenges, given that each state and territory has its own process for running elections. 

Man standing in front of blank wall.
Ron Gula. Photo courtesy of Gula.

Returning to the present election, Forno discussed how securing information shared on social media also plays a role in elections, even if people are still voting through traditional means. He suggested that social media companies must play a major role in identifying and preventing the spread of misinformation. By blocking inaccurate information from being posted or shared online, these companies can thwart efforts to bad actors to influence elections. UMBC faculty, students, and alumni are currently working on artificial intelligence and cybersecurity technologies to address these issues.

Woman standing in front of blank wall.
Sarah Lenti. Photo courtesy of Lenti.

Further discussing vulnerabilities of the current election, Lenti described her organization’s work to track voter suppression efforts, to hold leaders accountable to maintaining a secure and accessible electoral process. The Lincoln Project recently announced a partnership with See Say 2020, which allows people to report acts of voter suppression and election interference in real time. 

“The Lincoln Project’s role is to basically shine a light on these activities with the hopes of it leading to some remedy and creating a deterrent,” Lenti said.

Forno reflected that looking at the broad ways in which cybersecurity plays a role in current and future elections shows how “cyber touches every aspect of society.”

Banner image: The entrance to bwtech@UMBC. Photo by Marlayna Demond ‘11 for UMBC.