Exclusive: NJOHSP director discusses cyber security and securing NJ’s elections

Monitoring danger on the dark web where extremism thrives. New Jersey’s Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness has experts working in a cybersecurity and communication integration cell.  Leah Mishkin asked State Homeland Security Director Jared Maples about the unique program called NJCCIC.

Maples: When you talk about cyber, you mentioned the cybersecurity piece. We have the NJCCIC. It’s the first of its kind in the country. It’s an information sharing hub for cyber threats. It’s actually the first in the United Sates at the state level to have that. It’s modeled after the NCCIC at the federal level. That is run in a way to make sure the information is disseminated out about the threat, the cyber risk, which because of where we are positionally, the critical infrastructure, the population density, we have a pretty significant risk there as well.

Mishkin: Going off of that actually, I want to read you some numbers on that topic. Since June, Google has removed 150,000 extremists videos. And then from August 2015 to February 2016, Twitter suspended over 636,000 accounts that were promoting terrorism. Some people can see that as an opportunity to influence less people. But, I wonder, for your job, does it make it more complicated because now these terrorist organizations are moving into the dark web where you can’t monitor them as easily.

Maples: Yes, the answer is it’s one of those Catch-22 problems, right? It’s great to get them offline and not inspired, and that’s again one of our focuses in New Jersey. We are very concerned with the inspiration piece, so from that perspective, it’s the less voices out there trying to convert these people, the better. But as far as where we go to try to track them in the dark web, we have this great relationship with the FBI, with the Department of Homeland Security at the federal level to help monitor as much of their capabilities as possible. We bring that to bear in the state and get that information out in an unclassified way. So, from a terrorist perspective. And it brings up a great point, there really is an interconnectedness between all of our operational areas. So, we deal with counterterrorism, cybersecurity and preparedness, which is infrastructure, etc. There really is a blurred line, if you will, between those. Those old stove pipes we can’t afford to have anymore, so we focus on getting that information out there as it pertains to not just terrorism and critical infrastructure, but also threats like election security and all these other areas. So, that’s what we’re doing in New Jersey.

Mishkin: Speaking of election security, take a listen to this sound bite. It was from one of our previous reports.

“These voting machines sit in the warehouses all year in between elections, so some insider could do it there. They are delivered to the polling places — schools, churches, firehouses — the Thursday before Tuesday election so they sit there unattended over the weekend,” said Andrew Appel, Princeton University computer science professor.

Mishkin: I guess first of all, what’s your reaction when you listen to that?

Maples: Sure. I mean we definitely want to talk with the Division of Elections. They are responsible overall. We’re the security end of this piece, but the Division of Elections and the Secretary of State’s Office monitors, oversees all the election systems, the boxes that he had talked about. We work with them heavily on not just the cybersecurity aspect, which is pretty low in New Jersey because they’re not connected to the internet, but then also the physical security which you’re talking about. The Division of Elections is focused very heavily on doing things like banding, so there’s specific bands they put on the election security device or the election devices for security. They’re tamper proof pieces so you know when they’ve been tampered with. There’s a lot of different mechanisms in place to literally lock the doors of those warehouses that he talks about. So there’s a lot of mechanisms I think that aren’t necessarily represented in his commentary that are happening behind the scenes to make sure that those devices are kept secure and kept in a way that maintains the freedom of the election system.

Mishkin: And I know New Jersey just received $10 million for this specific topic. How would you use that money and should people go in voting confidently that the process is being held with integrity and that it’s going to be safe?

Maples: Well, I’ll answer the first part of it. I believe firmly in the integrity of our election system. I think folks can come in and feel that they’re operating in a free, and safe, and fair environment to vote for the candidates of their choice. That’s one of our key goals, obviously, is to maintain that democratic freedom, that principal of freedom that you can vote in a safe manner in a way that isn’t compromised. As far as what we’re doing with that money, without getting into a lot of specifics, it is involved in that target hardening, making it even harder to break into systems, working on the cyber angle to ensure that even though they can’t be connected to the internet, making sure we’re focused on that not happening. Also training, working with election officials. We talk quite a bit to the state’s official election officers throughout the state, all 21 counties and the municipalities, to make sure they’re aware of what the threats actually are and then what they can do about those threats. That training takes a lot of time, resources, energy, but it’s important and that’s something we’re going to be focused on over the next calendar year and then for many years to come because this is definitely not going away.

This is part three in a three-part series of interviews with Jared Maples, the director of the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness. You can watch part one and part two.