Why North Carolina outsourced election cybersecurity to a 'CISO-as-a-service'

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Faced with mounting cybersecurity needs headed toward the presidential election, but lacking the financial resources to build out a more robust internal IT staff, the North Carolina State Board of Elections last year hired a third-party vendor to provide the functions of a chief information security officer as a service, rather than an individual official.

The CISO-as-a-service model, which was implemented July 2019, has allowed the board to increase its network intrusion monitoring and risk assessment functions, and made it easier for state officials to know what information security investments to make, according Torry Crass, a cybersecurity adviser at Woodstar Labs, NCSBE’s vendor. The program, he said, is to provide the board with advice and guidance on how to improve its cyber defenses ahead of an election that U.S. Intelligence Community has warned is being targeted by nation-state actors.

“We’re helping them to improve their cybersecurity program overall,” Crass said. “Not just implementing a single piece of technology. There’s also the aspect around their program itself and building that out and keeping up with the threat landscape.”

But some of the technology Woodstar’s team has helped the NCSBE implement is now familiar in the election-security space, including Zeek, a network-security monitoring software that analyzes inbound web traffic to the board’s servers, and Corelight, a physical monitoring device.

The purpose is to protect both North Carolina’s voter registration database and reported vote totals once they’re entered into a computer, said Sean Maybee, the deputy director of cybersecurity programs for Woodstar’s parent company, Associated Universities, Inc.

“We’re helping with the perception of the election by securing the network,” he said. “With network behavioral analysis, we’re collecting all this metadata and we can get to what’s happening with the vote data once it gets digitized.”

In providing a CISO-as-a-service function, Woodstar also acts as a liaison between the NCSBE and its federal and nonprofit partners like the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and the Election Infrastructure Information Sharing and Analysis Center, Maybee added.

North Carolina uses a combination of hand-marked paper ballots and touchscreen devices that produce printed receipts fed into optical scanners. None of the voting machines are connected to the internet, but the board still manages a voter registration database and a website where unofficial results are reported on election nights, as do the state’s 100 counties. Both voter files and results websites have been repeatedly cited by federal cybersecurity officials as targets for threats like ransomware, with the potential for creating chaos at the polls in the event of a successful attack.

“It’s so prevalent all the time now. It does pose a threat essentially to everybody,” Crass said. “We want to take steps and develop policies with the State Board of Elections and its partner agencies.”

North Carolina officials did not respond to questions about Woodstar Labs’ role as the elections board’s cybersecurity functionary, but both Maybee and Crass, who is based in Charlotte, said hiring a vendor to be a CISO-as-a-service is a sign of organizational maturity.

“It brings a team to a table,” Crass said. “There’s a team that allows different industry experiences to come together and compare notes to give NC the best information possible for what a path forward in any given situation is, rather than have to pay for two, three, four people at those salary points.”

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Chief Information Security Officer (CISO), election security, North Carolina, North Carolina State Board of Elections
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