2024 is a year of elections, with more than 70 elections scheduled in 40 countries around the world. One of the key pillars of democracy is trust. To that end, ensuring that the Internet is trusted, secure, reliable, and accessible for the public and those working in the election space is critical to any free and fair election.
Cloudflare has considerable experience in gearing up for elections and identifying how our cyber security tools can be used to help vulnerable groups in the election space. In December 2022, we expanded our product set to include Zero Trust products to assist these groups against new and emerging threats. Over the last few years, we’ve reported on our work in protecting a range of election entities and as we prepare for the 2024 elections, we want to provide insight into attack trends we’ve seen against these groups to understand what to expect in the next year.
For this blog post, we identified cyber attack trends for a variety of groups in the elections space based in the United States, as many of our Cloudflare Impact projects provide services to these groups. These include U.S. state and local government websites protected under the Athenian Project, as well as U.S. nonprofit organizations that work in voting rights and promoting democracy under Project Galileo, and political campaigns and parties under Cloudflare for Campaigns.
Our main findings:
- From November 1, 2022, to August 31, 2023, Cloudflare mitigated 234,740,000 threats to U.S elections groups surveyed.
- Internet traffic to these websites has steadily increased, up nearly 25% between January 2023 and August 2023.
- We observed an increase in traffic to political campaign websites during elections, then steadily decreasing traffic until elections in the following year, as shown with the traffic spikes we see during the analyzed time period.
- HTTP Anomaly remained the top layer 7 attack vector mitigated by the Web Application Firewall, followed by SQL Injection.
Supporting state and local governments that run elections with the Athenian Project
Under the Athenian Project, Cloudflare provides our highest level of protection to state and local governments in the United States that run elections. As of November 2023, 390 state and local governments in 31 states are protected under the project. Across this cohort, Cloudflare mitigated 213.78 million threats to government election sites between November 1, 2022, and August 31, 2023, an average of 703,223 threats per day.
On Election Day, November 7, 2022, we saw traffic to state and local government sites increase by more than 500%. Analysis shows that 80% of this traffic was classified as coming from human users, which is expected, as we tend to see an increase in traffic during election time as constituents view their local county board of election sites to identify polling locations and election results.
We’ve also seen an increase in state and local governments onboarding .gov domains to Cloudflare. In September 2022, The U.S Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) announced the agency would launch a new .gov registrar with the intent of making it easier for government organizations to set up a .gov website, while also making the domain more secure. We observed that 65% of traffic to Athenian domains is to .gov domains.
When we look at traffic that was mitigated by Cloudflare’s Web Application Firewall (WAF), specifically Cloudflare managed rulesets, we see an oscillating traffic pattern identified as HTTP anomalies until a sudden (and seemingly permanent) drop after mid-April 2023. Managed rulesets are pre-configured firewall rules that provide immediate protection against common vulnerabilities. These managed rulesets are created by the Cloudflare security team, provide fast and effective protection for customer applications, and are updated frequently to cover new vulnerabilities and reduce false positives.
The managed rules are a great feature, especially for organizations with limited security resources, as they are easy to enable and protect against common vulnerabilities that Cloudflare has identified that have hit thousands of websites. Within the WAF Managed Rules, the top category that we see for mitigations is HTTP Anomaly. HTTP anomalies include such things as malformed method names, null byte characters in headers, non-standard ports, or content length of zero with a POST request.
We found 76% of traffic that was mitigated by the WAF was HTTP anomalies, followed by SQL Injection (SQLi) at only 8%. There is another pattern seen in XSS (Cross-Site-Scripting) attempts that are observed every 23rd day of the month. Given this very “strict” pattern, this could be due to an automated attack of some sort.
Supporting political campaigns and state parties with Cloudflare for Campaigns
Cloudflare launched Cloudflare for Campaigns in January 2020, in partnership with the nonprofit, nonpartisan organization Defending Digital Campaigns. Under the partnership, we protect 70 political campaigns and 20 political parties in the United States. Between November 1, 2022, and August 31, 2023,Cloudflare mitigated 1.83 million threats to political campaign sites, which is an average of 6,019 threats per day.
When we look at traffic trends for these domains, we see a spike in November 2022 during the midterm elections in the United States, but significantly lower traffic after this time. Overall, interest in these campaign websites appears to be limited only to election times and some months prior.
When we identify traffic that was blocked by Cloudflare, a majority (79%) was blocked by WAF rules. However, this wasn’t all from malicious sources, as some of the rules have been configured by the campaigns themselves to block other types of unwanted traffic. For example, some campaigns block traffic from outside of the United States from accessing the website, which would be classified as a blocked request. As we’ve worked with many campaigns in the past on how to get the most out of Cloudflare security tools, we think it is a sign of progress that campaigns are setting specific rules that help them mitigate or challenge traffic that they may not want to access the site.
In addition to the customer-configured rules, these campaign sites are also protected by WAF managed rules (run by Cloudflare), with 47% of mitigated traffic identified as HTTP Anomaly and 30% SQLi.
Supporting organizations that promote free and fair elections with Project Galileo
As part of our analysis we also identified 69 organizations in the United States that are protected under Project Galileo that work on a range of topics related to voting rights and promoting free and fair elections. For those organizations, Cloudflare mitigated 19.13 million threats between November 1, 2022, and August 31, 2023, an average of 62,927 threats per day.
We saw a spike in traffic during election time in November 2022 and another slight increase in April 2023. During this time, the largest number of blocked requests was mitigated by Cloudflare’s Security Level. Cloudflare’s Security Level is a security tool that ranks requests based on IP reputation to decide whether to present a Managed Challenge page. A managed challenge helps determine whether the request is considered malicious or legitimate. If the visitor passes the challenge, their request is allowed. If they fail, the request will be blocked. Many of these challenges are issued as a result of domains enabling Under Attack Mode, which enforces an elevated Security Level to help mitigate layer 7 DDoS attacks.
For traffic that was mitigated by the WAF, we found the top mitigation categories to be HTTP Anomalies at 48% and SQLi at 25%. Overall, we saw more requests mitigated by Cloudflare’s WAF than traffic that was considered DDoS.
Taking our elections expertise global
In 2021, we announced our partnership with the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) to provide our highest level of protection for free to election management bodies (EMBs) around the world. An EMB is an institution responsible for organizing and overseeing elections in a particular jurisdiction with a primary role of ensuring that the electoral process is conducted fairly and transparently. Since beginning our partnership, we’ve provided protection or expertise to 7 election management bodies to support their work in promoting free and fair elections. As part of this, we’ve worked with election commissions in Kosovo and North Macedonia to protect their election infrastructure.
“Security is the cornerstone of any democratic process, and free and fair elections are no exception. Security products like those from Cloudflare become even more critical in an increasingly digital world. With Cloudflare, we have effectively mitigated numerous cyber threats, ensuring citizens uninterrupted access to electoral information in Kosovo. This has significantly fostered trust and transparency in our electoral processes.”
– Kreshnik Spahiu
Director of the Information Technology Department, Central Election Commission of Kosovo
As we approach 2024 with many elections in newly emerging democracies, we are excited to continue our work with IFES to provide our services and share our expertise to help election groups stay secure online.
Looking toward 2024…
If 2024 is anything like 2023, we should continue to expect irregularities regarding Internet access during elections. We’ve seen this in areas such as Cambodia, where ahead of the 2023 elections, Cambodian officials ordered internet service providers to block website access to three news outlets reporting on the election as a way to control the independent media. In Zimbabwe, a new law known as the Patriotic Bill was passed before the general election, encompassing a wide range of provisions that make it illegal to engage in speech deemed to pose a threat to the nation’s sovereignty or vital national interests.
The last few years contain many examples of how governments have undermined and controlled the flow of information through Internet shutdowns, restricted social media sites during elections, and imposed blocking of websites that report on results. If current trends continue, 2024 will be a pivotal year for online freedoms.
In light of this, we want to ensure that all groups working to promote democracy around the world have the tools they need to stay secure online. If you work in the election space and need our help, please apply at https://www.cloudflare.com/election-security.