Experts to confront the threat of Queensland election cyber attack

Whether it is the Russians, or the failure of some new-fangled technology, the threat of disruption to computer-run elections is real. And the threat alone is enough to undermine faith in the political process.

Feb 20, 2020, updated Feb 20, 2020

That is why the Electoral Commission of Queensland – with council and state elections to run the coming months – has called in the experts and is testing a new computer system in an effort to avoid any failure or foreign interference.

Over a year ago, the Council of Australian Governments agreed to work together to make such systems “resilient to cyber threats”. There had been reports of attempted cyber attacks, on government agencies and political parties, and a top-level Deloitte review found they were increasing and “appear to be aimed at undermining public confidence in the validity of the democratic process”.

“Reports of attempted or successful cyber security breaches can spread quickly given the prolific use of social media as a communication platform,” the consultants found.

“This increases the ease with which adversaries can sow doubt in the security and integrity of electoral processes. This risk further increases in highly partisan and closely contested elections and can undermine public confidence in the integrity of Australian democracy.”

The ECQ, at the time commissioning a new system, initially argued against the national review being released under Freedom of Information laws. A Queensland-specific audit was kept secret, and the national review heavily redacted.

An ECQ spokesman told InQueensland its new Election Management System would be first used for the council elections and Currumbin by-election on March 28.

“From the voters’ perspective little will change: they will still vote using pencil and paper at the polling booth, or via electronically assisted voting (telephone voting) for a small group of eligible electors (which still results in paper ballots being printed), and ballots will be collated and counted by hand at the end of polling,” the spokesman said.

However, the EMS will “modernise” how the ECQ runs elections, and other stakeholders and experts are determined to ensure it is not a backward step for Queensland.

“Cyber security remains an ongoing priority for the ECQ both in delivery of the EMS and in its other operations,” the spokesman said.

“ECQ has proactively engaged with and worked closely with both the federal government (Australian Cyber Security Centre and the Australian Electoral Commission) and the Queensland Government’s own cyber-security resources, including the Cyber Security Unit working for the Queensland Government Chief Information Security Officer and Police Cyber Crime Unit to ensure better practice assurance for this functionality.

“This includes the use of independent Australian consultants to undertake supplier assurance to undertake technical reviews, including penetration testing. In addition, the functionality being provided by the EMS is hosted and protected by the CITEC, the Queensland Government’s provider of critical and secure ICT services and is monitored continuously by the Queensland Government Cyber Security Operations Centre.”

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