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Inslee gives nonprofit exclusive access to local county election systems

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(The Center Square) – Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has signed a bill into law giving a New York State-based nonprofit a monopoly on providing intrusion detection systems to local county systems that has also engaged with the state in online content moderation efforts.

The bill represents the culmination of efforts by the Secretary of State Steve Hobbs to get all 39 counties to use what are called “Albert sensors,” a type of IDS managed by the Center for Internet Security.

Sponsored by Sen. Joe Nguyen, D-White Center, at the request of Hobbs’ office, Senate Bill 5843 requires all counties to enter into a contract with CIS and have Albert sensors installed on their county systems. The bill also stipulates that all cyberattacks on a county system be reported to SOS and the State Attorney General’s Office.

At the bill’s March 13 signing, Inslee described the legislation as “an important bill that helps protect our democratic process in multiple ways.”

Albert sensors are installed via software on hardware, according to an installation guide obtained by The Center Square. Their purpose is to scan a network for potential malicious attacks and alert the system managers.

For detractors, the bill is a stick wielded by SOS after attempts with a carrot failed to get a small holdout of counties to install Albert sensors. In March 2021, the Legislature appropriated $8 million in the supplemental operating budget to in part provide grants to counties to “address identified threats.” However, SOS ultimately required that applicants have Albert sensors installed on their system in order to qualify for the grant.

Several counties such as Ferry and Lincoln previously had them installed on their systems but later removed them. Lincoln County had a ransomware attack in 2020, but officials say that they received no word from CIS of the cyberattack and later disconnected it. According to bill testimony provide by one county commissioner, the Albert sensors operate outside of the system firewall. While advocates describe the sensors as passively monitoring the systems, critics said its activity cannot be independently determined by the counties.

In a February 17, 2022, letter to the Ferry County Commissioners in response to their decision to remove the Albert sensors, Hobbs wrote that “cyberattacks can come from individuals, criminals, terrorist organizations, and nation-state actors. In light of growing tensions in Europe, governments need to be more vigilant against cyber threats.”

Days later, SOS hosted a Zoom meeting in which Ferry County commissioners, county auditors, and county IT technicians were invited to participate in discussions around Albert sensors.

At the time of the bill’s passage, only three counties in the state were not using Albert sensors.

Inslee remarked at the bill signing that “it’s unfortunate that we can’t get all of our counties to voluntarily use this tool to protect our democracy but this is a consequence of this age of conspiracy theories and disinformation about our elections.”

Another provision in the bill authorizes SOS to certify county election results if the county refuses “without cause.” Inslee argued that this is a “direct consequence of the ongoing persistent disinformation campaign being advanced by Donald Trump and his followers.”

Although a nonprofit, CIS receives federal funding and has collaborated with both federal and state agencies in social media censorship efforts. It has been accused of relaying censorship requests on behalf of the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office to social media platforms in response to posts about elections, while in Washington state the SOS during the 2020 election reported social media posts deemed to be spreading election “misinformation” to CIS.

SB 5843 takes effect on June 6.

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