The overarching question imparting urgency to this exploration is: Can U.S.-Russian contention in cyberspace cause the two nuclear superpowers to stumble into war? In considering this question we were constantly reminded of recent comments by a prominent U.S. arms control expert: At least as dangerous as the risk of an actual cyberattack, he observed, is cyber operations’ “blurring of the line between peace and war.” Or, as Nye wrote, “in the cyber realm, the difference between a weapon and a non-weapon may come down to a single line of code, or simply the intent of a computer program’s user.”
Directed by Eric Rosenbach, the Defending Digital Democracy Project (D3P) aims to identify and recommend strategies, tools, and technology to protect democratic processes and systems from cyber and information attacks. By creating a unique and bipartisan team comprised of top-notch political operatives, experts in technology, and leaders in the cyber and national security world, D3P intends to offer concrete solutions to an urgent problem.
Foreign nations and non-state actors are not backing down in their efforts to hack systems, alter the outcome, and undermine confidence in our elections. The Defending Digital Democracy Project helps institutions fortify themselves against these attacks by:
- Developing solutions to share important threat information with technology providers, governments, political organizations;
- Providing election administrators, election infrastructure providers, campaign organizations and leaders involved in democratic processes with practical “playbooks” to improve their cybersecurity;
- Developing strategies for how the United States and other democracies can credibly deter hostile actors from engaging in cyber and information operations;
- Assessing emerging technologies, such as blockchain, that may improve the integrity of systems and processes vital to elections and democracy;
- Convening civic, technology, and media leaders to develop best practices that can shield our public discourse from adversarial information operations.
D3P is led by Eric Rosenbach, Co-Director of the Belfer Center and former Assistant Secretary of Defense. Prior to his July 2015 appointment as Chief of Staff to Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, Rosenbach served as the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Global Security.
In 2017, Rosenbach recruited Robby Mook, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign manager, and Matt Rhoades, Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign manager, to join D3P as Fellows and co-founders.
D3P focuses on creating accessible and actionable tools to promote knowledge and support decisionmakers. Eric Rosenbach testified that "Disruptions to American elections are a whole-of-nation threat that requires a whole of government response. In the face of these threats, Congress needs to take the lead on securing our democracy. We will never be able to eliminate the cyber and information risks posed by our adversaries to elections, but we can manage this risk effectively by prioritizing actions to secure our elections now."
Since July 2017, D3P has worked alongside election administrators, national security and technology experts, political and civic thought leaders towards it's mission.
The D3P team includes talented students, alumni, fellows and Senior Advisors. Throughout the course of our work, D3P has engaged over one thousand election officials across more than 40 states and the District of Columbia. These efforts have taken the form of national training events for state and local election officials in person and online, tabletop exercises, playbooks for countering and responding to cybersecurity attacks and information operations, incident communication response plans, data analysis, and quick resources. The project has also provided recommendations through congressional testimony and reports.
We’ve been honored to work with public servants across the country in defending our digital democracy and hope the work of the project continues to support future efforts.
Eric Rosenbach, Co-Director Belfer Center, Director and Co-Founder, D3P
Additional Insights from D3P Director, Eric Rosenbach on the project's mission:
“Americans across the political spectrum agree that political contests should be decided by the power of ideas, not the skill of foreign hackers,” Rosenbach said. “Cyber deterrence starts with strong cyber defense — and this project brings together key partners in politics, national security, and technology to generate innovative ideas to safeguard our key democratic institutions.”
“Over the last two years, nearly every election on both sides of the Atlantic has been affected by foreign cyber attacks, including Hillary Clinton’s in 2016,” said Mook. “Many foreign countries, and even terrorist organizations, exploit digital technology to advance their agendas and influence public narratives abroad. This project will find practical solutions to help both parties and civic institutions that are critical to our elections better secure themselves and become more resilient to attacks.”
“Cyber attacks on campaigns and elections are a threat to our democracy and affect people of all political stripes,” said Rhoades. "Foreign actors could target any political party at any time, and that means we all need to work together to address these vulnerabilities. This project will bring together not just different parties and ideologies, but subject matter experts from cyber security, national security, technology, and election administration to make a difference.”
Senior Advisory Group
- Heather Adkins, Director, Information Security and Privacy, Google
- Dmitri Alperovitch, Co-Founder and CTO, Crowdstrike
- Stuart Holliday, President and CEO, Meridian International Center; former United States Ambassador for Special Political Affairs at the United Nations
- Kent Lucken, Managing Director, Citigroup
- Robby Mook, co-founder, Defending Digital Democracy Project
- Jan Neutze, Director of Cybersecurity Policy, Microsoft
- Debora Plunkett, former Director of the National Security Agency's Information Assurance Directorate
- Eric Rosenbach, Co-Director, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
- Suzanne Spaulding, former Under Secretary for National Protections and Programs Directorate, Department of Homeland Security
- Alex Stamos, former Chief Security Officer, Facebook
- Charles Stewart III, Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Political Science, MIT
- Siobhan Gorman, Director of the Cybersecurity Practice, Brunswick Group
- Matt Rhoades, Co-Founder, Defending Digital Democracy Project
- Michael Steed, Founder and Managing Partner, Paladin Capital Group
The D3P team also includes incredibly talented students and alumni who are vital to the work the project is able to do.
Beyond 2020: Policy Recommendations for the Future of Election Security
The 2020 election presents a paradox. Despite dramatic changes to the election process due to the COVID-19 pandemic and increasingly complex threats since the 2016 election, 2020 is widely regarded as “the most secure [election] in American history.” Operationally, it was also one of the smoothest. State and local election officials overcame unprecedented challenges and scarce resources to administer an election with fewer incidents of cyber compromises, technical failures or long lines than anticipated. After Election Day, recount procedures functioned as designed. Yet, amidst these successes, officials from both parties faced a barrage of mis- and disinformation about the election process that served to undermine confidence in the result. Though the election security ecosystem survived the triple threat of cybersecurity, physical security, and mis- and disinformation in 2020, this success will prove to be hard to replicate in future election cycles without proper investment and reinforcement.
D3P has identified four overarching challenges policymakers and election officials at the state and federal levels must address:
- Many states do not have a coherent or consistent policy to protect local IT infrastructure and election systems, and lack the necessary funding to make needed improvements;
- Although federal support was greatly enhanced since 2016, it is still inconsistent and spread across agencies;
- Strategies and structures to confront mis- and disinformation are fragmented and insufficient at the state and federal levels, and fail to hold social media platforms sufficiently accountable for protecting election integrity;
- Training and support for election officials remains inconsistent and hard to access.
This report highlights D3P’s key recommendations for how these challenges can be addressed by state and federal legislators and policymakers. We believe these recommendations deserve serious consideration to create a more sustainable election ecosystem and stay ahead of challenges yet to come.
2020 National Training Tour
Throughout the summer of 2020, the Defending Digital Democracy Project (D3P) launched a national training tour effort for local election officials as they prepared for the election.
Given the many changes of the past months, the tour was conducted digitally and was designed to give officials the best of D3P live training sessions in a new format. In addition to supporting local election officials through customized trainings, the tour also hosted some special sessions for state and local election officials.
Our team had the wonderful opportunity to connect with over 750 officials across 17 states as a part of the training tour. Thank you for your time, trust and collaboration.
The Training Tour is now available online. Taking the dynamic interaction of the summer tour D3P developed a private site exclusively for officials to access training tour materials at any time.
Training content focuses on issues that are top of mind or high-risk areas for officials. Key topics include:
- Operations Management and Incident Tracking (e.g., Frameworks from the Elections Battle Staff Playbook)
- Incident Response / Crisis Communications (e.g., Cyber and Mis/Disinformation Incident Communications Response)
- Information Operations (e.g., Identifying, responding and reporting disinformation and misinformation incidents)
- Special topics including COVID-19 and related cybersecurity and disinformation considerations
During the tour, trainings focused on an interactive, discussion-based format and included live simulations to work through concepts in small groups. Trainings included some form of:
- Pre-work: Review short checklists, templates, and self-assessment questionnaires
- Classroom training: Review and share best practices and current trends that may impact your work
- Live simulation/ Table Top Exercise (TTX): Validate your processes and responses to generate actionable information for post-training follow up
The D3P Training sessions are available via videos that allow you to access key content areas you're interested in exploring. The Training Tour online also includes tour slides and handouts.
Sign Up for the Training Tour Online!
The D3P team’s goal is to best support officials and to custom the delivery of tour content as works best for your jurisdictions. The D3P Training Tour site for officials includes: slides, videos, and resources on all training sessions from the tour, including: Battle Staff, influence operations, cybersecurity, and incident communications.
To request access to this site, please fill out the short form linked below. Contact email@example.com with any questions. Please also feel free to share this resource with any officials who have not yet gotten to train with D3P. We also welcome any feedback on how we might best be able to make the training tour site better to support your ongoing efforts.
D3P’s work is committed to supporting officials in protecting the elections process. Just as you continue your work to serve the American people, we continue our work to serve you.
We look forward to connecting with you!
D3P is grateful for the Democracy Fund’s support in this effort.
The Election Influence Operations Playbook
The threat of Influence Operations (IO) strikes the core of our democracy by seeking to influence hearts and minds with divisive and often false information. Although malicious actors are targeting the whole of society, the upcoming “The Election Influence Operations Playbook” focuses on a subset of influence operations—the types of disinformation attacks and misinformation incidents most commonly seen around elections, where election officials are best positioned to counter them.
This Playbook includes guides that aim to provide election officials with resources and recommendations on how to navigate information threats targeting elections. It offers an introduction to Election Influence Operations: what they are, how they work, and why they can impact our elections. It also includes recommendations for reporting, responding and countering mis and disinformation incidents around elections.
This Playbook is meant to be a starting point and can be adapted for a jurisdiction’s needs. We hope it will be a useful resource for state and local election officials working to protect our elections and democracy from these evolving threats.
Download the full playbooks below:
This section of the Playbook provides an introduction to Influence Operations: what they are, who is carrying them out, why they can impact our elections, and how they work.
This playbook explores mis and disinformation incidents that specifically focus on elections operations and infrastructure. Throughout these guides, we refer to mis/disinformation as one concept, since the strategies for countering or responding to them are the same.
This section of the Playbook includes recommendations and materials focused on the response process. It will help election officials respond to election-related mis and disinformation incidents quickly and in a coordinated fashion.
In this Playbook, we refer to mis/disinformation throughout as one concept. Instances of both misinformation (unintentional) and disinformation (intentional) in the elections process provide incorrect information to voters. For election officials, any incorrect information presented to voters, regardless of source or intention, can pose a threat to elections because it can undermine voters’ understanding of and trust in the election.
Because mis/disinformation can occur before, during, and after elections, recommendations in this guide support officials throughout each phase. While there is no one solution to countering mis/disinformation incidents, the response plan will help officials prepare and respond as tactics evolve.
Part 3: Mis/Disinformation Scenario Plans
This section complements Part 1 and Part 2 of the Playbook and is available exclusively for election officials’ use. It provides specific recommendations and scenario-based materials to aid state and local election officials in building a response plan.
This guide includes materials for six mock scenarios that could occur and spread on social media: (1) false voter identification requirements spread online; (2) congestion is causing polling places to turn voters away; (3) political partisans are “stealing the election;” (4) the people who run elections are corrupt; (5) false claims that poll places are closed due to COVID-19; and (6) false claims of a judicial/official order to delay the election.
D3P National Election Data Set
In Development — Working Draft
U.S. national security officials warned that malicious actors would continue to use influence operations and disinformation attacks throughout the 2020 election. These threats seek to cast doubt, cause division and amplify false information.
Although malicious actors are targeting the whole of society with such tactics, D3P has been working to provide recommendations and resources that highlight a subset of influence operations—the types of disinformation attacks and misinformation incidents most commonly seen around elections and the election process.
Influence Operations are occurring before, during, and after election day. The 2020 general election has been unlike any other that the American public has experienced before. The significant operational challenges associated with holding an election during a pandemic—especially an enormous increase in voting by mail—are exacerbated by a lack of public awareness of how those changes will affect the tempo of Election Night, the time it takes to tabulate ballots, and when results are reported. These realities in the midst of the current threat landscape provide fodder for disinformation to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election process and on election results.
D3P has developed a dataset detailing the most relevant state-specific factors that describe the election process and may affect timelines for tabulating and reporting election results. This data set currently provides information on and analysis for state-specific regulations regarding:
- Post-election litigation
- Recount Requests
- Post-election milestones
- Getting a ballot
- Return timing for ballots
- Ease of voting by mail factors
- Processing, counting, and curing mail-in ballots
- Early voting
- Provisional ballots
- Canvassing and certifying results
This is a living document that we will update on a regular basis, as some of these regulations and factors that underpin the data are changing in real time. Given the dynamic environment, we always recommend that you check directly with your state and local election official for critical information about the how, when and where of the election process. We will be adding more information into the data set and welcome feedback about relevant factors to include, which can be shared at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This dataset can serve as a resource to media, public leaders, and voters seeking comprehensive, state-by-state information about the election. As disinformation attacks seek to disrupt our elections and cast doubt on our democratic processes, we hope this data set is a helpful resource in better understanding election processes during an unprecedented time.
Key Resources for the Remainder of the Election Cycle
Nearing Election Day, we know that election officials are hard at work. Last month’s news confirming cyber and influence threats makes their efforts even more meaningful.
On this page D3P has compiled a short list of key resources for officials and those working to support them to reference for the remainder of the election cycle. This page also includes resources that may be helpful to other decision-makers in the democratic process (voters, journalists, among others) as they seek to better understand attacks targeting this election.
- Top takeaways — short guides that are applicable and may still be actionable for election officials ahead of election day and through the remainder of the election cycle.
- Quick links to various D3P resources in one place for easy reference.
We welcome you to share these resources. We hope they will support those on the frontlines of defending democracy in their work to uphold the integrity of this election.
Final Week Cybersecurity Considerations
Considerations as you prepare to counter cyber threats.
Read the one-pager »
Elections Battle Staff Communications
Notes on coordination and back up communications planning.
Read the one-pager »
Mis/Disinformation and Cyber Incident Communications Response
Steps you can take this week to prepare your incident communications response.
Read the one-pager »
Additional D3P Resources
» D3P Trainings Online
During the summer of 2020, D3P conducted a national training tour working with over 750 officials across 17 states. The resources from these trainings are available to any election official, whether they’ve engaged with D3P or not. This online site includes a series of videos, slides and handouts that summarize key concepts and frameworks. Video training sessions cover a number of topics and are usually appx. 10-20 min long.
Below is an example of one of the incident communications modules, which share communications response recommendations and advice for engaging with media and the public.
» Additional D3P Materials
- Election Influence Operations Playbook
- Part 1: Understanding Election Influence Operations
- Part 2: Mis/Disinformation Response Plan
- Part 3: Mis/Disinformation Scenario Plans (Non-Public Exclusive for officials). Get access to this document here or by emailing email@example.com.
- Top Targets of Election Interference: The “Five” Questions
- Election Cybersecurity Playbook for State and Local Election Officials
- Election Cyber Incident Communications Coordination Guide
- Election Cyber Incident Communications Plan Template
- Non-Public Private Appendix (Exclusive for election officials). The private appendix for cyber incident communications response includes materials to make the public cyber guides customizable to the jurisdiction. Get access to this document here or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.