In recent years information security challenges have dominated headlines as hacking incidents at companies – such as Home Depot, Target and Anthem – become more prevalent. But 2016 seems to be the year of the political hack. A lack of information security can prove to be debilitating to even the most savvy political campaigns, as career politicians have learned firsthand both domestically within the U.S. and aboard.
Cyber criminals have the means to circumvent information security practices put in place by political campaigns and cause a wide variety of problems. From embarrassing email leaks to hacking donors’ financial data, cyber crime has played a pivotal role in this presidential race.
Short-lived, high-stress political campaigns are particularly vulnerable to cyber crime. Frantic political campaign offices and parties may not be able allocate the time and resources needed to implement effective and holistic cyber security measures.
So what’s the real impact of hacking in this new political age? And how has it influenced the most controversial presidential race in U.S. history?
Information Security Challenges in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election
Mid-2016 saw the first of several hacking incidents connected with the U.S. presidential race. Stolen Democratic National Committee (DNC) emails were released to the public, forcing the resignation of Chair Debbie Wasserman.
At the time, the DNC speculated that the deed was committed by Russian hackers to boost the campaign of Republican nominee Donald Trump.
After further investigation, American intelligence agencies confirmed that the Russian government was responsible for the theft of the DNC emails and documents. The Department of Homeland Security issued a statement which stated that the leaked emails “are intended to interfere with the U.S. election process… We believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.”
In another incident in October 2016, WikiLeaks released thousands of email messages hacked from the account of John Podesta, chairman for the campaign of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. The personal emails revealed internal campaign misgivings about Clinton’s relatability to the public, core messaging and public image. Experts strongly believe that the messages were delivered to WikiLeaks by Russian hackers to increase Trump’s chances of winning.
The Role of Information Security in Foreign Elections
While hacking has been detected in the last three U.S. election cycles, no cyber crime has been linked to changing election outcomes. However, elections have been affected by information security breaches in other parts of the world, including South Africa and Latin America.
In South Africa, a hacker infiltrated the election system for the 1994 historic election that saw Nelson Mandela rise to power. Peter Harris, head of the official election monitors, says the hacker boosted the votes of three right-wing parties. “The electronic count was compromised by a hacker who went in and multiplied the vote. The electronic count was then closed down. It stopped. That’s when the results stopped going to South Africa and the rest of the world.”
As a result, the vote count had to be done manually to avoid any further hacking attempts, with Nelson Mandela’s ANC party being declared the undisputed winner of the election.
In Latin America, expert hacker Andrés Sepúlveda says he traveled the continent rigging major political campaigns for eight years. “My job was to do actions of dirty war and psychological operations, black propaganda, rumors – the whole dark side of politics that nobody knows exists but everyone can see.”
Sepúlveda claims he was paid $600,000 to rig the election for Enrique Peña Nieto, the current president of Mexico. According to Sepúlveda, he led a team of hackers that manipulated social media to create false waves of enthusiasm and derision, stole campaign strategies and installed spyware in opposition offices.
Sepúlveda is now serving 10 years in prison for a number of charges, including use of malicious software, conspiracy to commit crime, violation of personal data and espionage, related to hacking during Colombia’s 2014 presidential election.
Hurting the Political Process and Donors
Some argue that hacking actually helps the political process by exposing secrets that should be made public. Others hold that good candidates can be destroyed by these actions, especially those in smaller races. While candidates in larger races have many resources available, less visible races could be drowned by the negative consequences of a politically motivated cyber crime.
Voters can be harmed by this kind of political maneuvering as well. Aside from getting false information that could impact when, where, how or even if they vote, U.S. citizens can become victims of identity theft or fraud as a result of information stolen from political campaigns, which collect and retain a large amount of personal information about their donors. Unfortunately, information security may not be a priority for short-lived and minimally funded political campaigns.
The Importance of Information Security in Government
Unfortunately, the government faces several changes when it comes to implementing cyber security measures in political campaigns. No central authority requires campaigns, political operations or other governmental agencies to implement information security practices. When governmental agencies and campaigns do pursue cyber security, decisions may be made quickly and with low cost as a core priority. Contrary to businesses, political entities may not be encouraged to develop contingency plans for cyber crime incidents.
Lawfare stated: “Businesses weigh their risks based on a variety of factors, including but not limited to: the type of information the company holds; the sensitivity of proprietary data; the amount of money and infrastructure the company has available to devote to cyber security; and, the breadth of human and technical access points to data… Cyber security planning for political campaigns should be built in at the beginning, with smart choices, and candidate and staff awareness from the start.”
This is why strong cyber security experts are badly needed within the government and political sphere. This growing field is expected to continue to expand in coming years, with the highest concentration of cyber security jobs in government and defense hubs like Virginia, Maryland, Washington D.C. and Colorado.
This growth will allow ample opportunities for cyber security professionals to innovate and find new ways to combat cyber crime. Play your own part in this battle by considering a career in this exciting field.
Your thoughts could shape this sector in the years to come. When it comes to cyber security, where should the government improve? What glaring vulnerabilities are there, and will the American people ever get a direct answer?