Christopher C. Krebs, former director of the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, spoke about the importance of securing democracy and the integrity of American elections at an Institute of Politics event Thursday.
The in-person event, entitled “Securing Democracy: Misinformation, Disinformation, and the Cyber-War for the 2022 Midterms,” explored the benefits and potential exploitations of technology in the American political system, as well as the role of government regulation. Joan Donovan, research director at the Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, moderated the discussion with Krebs.
Krebs was fired by former U.S. president Donald Trump in November 2020, after his agency pushed back against Trump's claims of widespread voter fraud. The CISA originally intended to combat foreign interference, but shifted its focus to quelling misinformation campaigns within the U.S. after the president tried to sow distrust in the election's integrity.
As head of CISA, which is within the Department of Homeland Security, Krebs was the administration’s most senior cybersecurity expert.
Krebs, a founding partner at cybersecurity consultancy Krebs Stamos Group, argued during Thursday's event that the benefits of technology outweigh the downsides, even when considering misinformation.
Invoking the motto of her research lab, “everything open will be exploited,” Donovan asked Krebs how the digital election system should be secured.
In addition to ensuring that the country's elections are secure, Krebs said the nation's cybersecurity agency must also consider how people will exploit security concerns to further their political agenda.
“It wasn’t just about protecting the election systems,” Krebs said. “It was also realizing there would be people out there who would use the narrative that this is an attack to try to target fear.”
Krebs and Donovan also discussed whether technology should be considered "critical government infrastructure." The CISA identifies 16 critical infrastructure sectors — including the food and agriculture sector and the financial services sector — that are considered "so vital" to the U.S. that their impairment would severely endanger the nation's security and well-being, according to the agency's website.
Krebs said that the definition and role of critical infrastructure changes over time, but not everything may be as “critical” as it seems.
“We have to start thinking about those things as utilities, because we aggregate a risk that they present in a data center,” Krebs said regarding types of technology.
Asked how technology should be regulated, Krebs said he thinks government needs to collect more information before enacting policy.
“I don’t think we have enough information right now to make meaningful targeted policy,” Krebs said. “There should be caveats — there should be carve-outs — particularly talking about financials and advertisements.”
Donovan also highlighted political advertisements as an area for potential regulation.
“I think it would be a good bet to push for regulation that would at least regulate political ads in such ways for more transparency and how much was being spent,” Donovan said.
Krebs also spoke about his defense of the election system against Trump’s claims of voter fraud. He said his actions were “defending democracy.”
Krebs said that despite voter fraud concerns, the U.S. election system is secure.
“We’ve got a pretty resilient system: good indicators, good networks,” Krebs said.