By Jonah Grinkewitz

Free and fair elections have become a hot-button issue for many voters and politicians.

For Karen Etulle, a cybersecurity master’s student at Old Dominion University, securing our elections is personal.

She immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines in 2014, but she and her four children became homeless after experiencing domestic violence. She found support through Samaritan House, an organization helping victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, human trafficking and homelessness.

“If I was in another country, I can’t imagine what would have happened to us,” Etulle said. “I owe it to this country that I can be whoever I want to be, no matter who I am, where I came from, or what I look like.”

Ahead of this year’s midterm elections, she and other ODU cybersecurity students spent the summer working with local registrar offices across Virginia to assess, improve and maintain their voter information systems.

“I feel it is my responsibility to serve and protect democracy and freedom in this country – the very country that took me in as its own.”

The effort was part of the VA Cyber Navigator Internship Program, a coalition of Virginia universities and colleges partnering with the Virginia Department of Elections. Led by the University of Virginia, it includes ODU, George Mason University, James Madison University, Norfolk State University, Virginia Commonwealth University and Virginia Tech.

Four students from ODU participated, giving them an opportunity to apply their skills for the good of the public.

“I think this program is very important, as it allows students to understand the importance of cybersecurity in elections and the real world,” said Ivan Santiago, an undergraduate cybersecurity student who interned in Appomattox and Mecklenburg counties with two other ODU students.

A law passed in 2019 requires the Virginia Department of Elections to ensure the security and integrity of the voter registration system and the supporting technologies used by counties and cities.

Although there is little evidence of voter fraud in U.S. elections, keeping up with cybersecurity standards is a challenge for local registrar offices because of a lack of staffing, training and resources.

“It was a godsend to have people like Karen come in,” said Terrence Flynn, the general registrar for Northampton County. “This was her language, and she served as a translator for me and the other staff.”

Etulle, who is also a member of the Cyber LeADERS program, worked with a student from Norfolk State to develop a risk assessment that showed potential vulnerabilities to Northampton County’s system. Many of their recommendations were simple: make sure doors are locked, don’t leave a laptop with sensitive information open, have a plan in place if physical systems are damaged through weather events.

Etulle said the key to strong cybersecurity is a strong team.

“We have proven, time and again, that attackers not only attack the technology organizations have, but they also target members of the organization, too,” she said.

That means having strong passwords, not clicking on suspicious links in emails and understanding that anytime you use the internet there are basic risks.

Although her time in the program ended in August, Etulle volunteered to help Northampton County’s office with any additional questions.

“That’s the kind of help we got from Karen – it didn’t matter whether she was on or off the clock,” Flynn said. “She took elections very seriously, and I think part of what she enjoyed was protecting democracy in America – which I thought was pretty neat.”