Ex-CIA chief worries campaigns falling short on cybersecurity

Democratic 2020 presidential campaigns say they are working to boost their cybersecurity, but experts worry those efforts may not be enough.

Former Acting CIA Director Michael Morell told The Hill he worries there is a “void” and that campaigns need outside help to fully address the issue.

“There is not a lot of initial thought given to cybersecurity,” Morell said about the campaigns.

Several campaigns insist they have prioritized the issue. 

Chris Meagher, the spokesperson for Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegLaw professor: Court-packing should be ‘last resort’ Biden tops Democratic field by 19 points in new South Carolina poll Iowa draws starstruck political tourists from around the world MORE’s campaign, told The Hill that “our campaign is committed to digital security,” noting the hiring of a full-time chief information security officer (CISO), Mick Bacchio, last week.

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“Hiring a full-time CISO is one way we are protecting against cyber attacks,” Meagher added.

A spokesperson for the presidential campaign of former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) told The Hill they are “actively engaged in defending our operation from disinformation and other cyber attacks.”

The spokesperson emphasized that “whether its training staff as a part of our onboarding process, requiring staff to use complex passwords to protect mobile devices, or using secure messaging services, this campaign understands that protecting our information requires a comprehensive approach to prepare for and manage attacks.

But many campaigns have said little on their cyber efforts. The Hill reached out to other 2020 presidential campaigns but those campaigns did not provide details on their cyber efforts.

A spokesperson for Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBiden just 1 point ahead of Warren in new weekly tracking poll Cummings, Sanders investigate three drug companies for ‘obstructing’ congressional probe Saagar Enjeti: Why Sanders is right about corporate media; Krystal Ball exposes anti-Bernie media bias MORE (D-Vt.) told The Hill that the campaign “does not comment on matters of security.”

Repeated cyber incidents in both 2016 and 2018 have put a spotlight on the issue and raised worries about a repeat in the upcoming presidential election.

Those incidents included the hacking of emails from Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonEx-GOP lawmaker argues for Trump primary challenge from the right The Hill’s Morning Report – Trump lauds tariffs on China while backtracking from more Democrats’ worst scenario: Nominating an uncompetitive far-left candidate MORE’s 2016 presidential campaign, and an unsuccessful attempt by hackers to access the systems of former Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillOcasio-Cortez blasts NYT editor for suggesting Tlaib, Omar aren’t representative of Midwest Trump nominees meet fiercest opposition from Warren, Sanders, Gillibrand Feds allow campaigns to accept discounted cybersecurity services MORE (D-Mo.) ahead of the 2018 midterms.

Federal agencies are doing more to highlight the threat to campaigns.

According to CNN, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence briefed 2020 presidential campaigns earlier this year on potential cyber threats. CNN reported that the campaigns of former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian CastroJulian CastroAssault weapons ban picks up steam in Congress Julián Castro buys ‘Fox & Friends’ ad to send ‘message’ to Trump on El Paso shooting Castro takes heat as outed Trump donors swing back MORE and of businessman Andrew YangAndrew YangFormer Yang staffer launches primary challenge to Nadler Steyer reaches donor threshold for fall Democratic debates Democratic official sees Steyer with early on-the-ground ‘advantage’ in Iowa MORE were the only campaigns to confirm their attendance.

Despite the strides made by campaigns, Morrell says campaigns need to do more to seek outside help.

“The government is not allowed to come in and provide that security, and private sector organizations that do cybersecurity want to get paid for it,” he said.

Morell is on the board of the newly launched U.S. CyberDome group, a non-profit organization that aims to provide free cybersecurity protections to 2020 presidential campaigns, and potentially in future elections.

The board is chaired by former Obama Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and other board members include former DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff, who served under President George W. Bush, former Director of National Intelligence Lt. Gen. James Clapper, and Brig. Gen. Francis Taylor, the former DHS under secretary of intelligence and analysis. 

Morell said one of the key goals of U.S. CyberDome is to fill the unique gaps campaigns face in the cybersecurity realm. He pointed to the fast-pace of a campaign.

“It’s not that people don’t understand what the risks are, it’s that they do understand what the risks are but they are busy doing their job,” Morell emphasized. “They are not thinking about how to protect themselves, so my sense is that when CyberDome has reached out to folks they say this makes a lot of sense.”

Morell confirmed that the group has reached out to every declared presidential campaign, on both sides of the aisle, and said CyberDome “are in conversations with a number of them.”

U.S. CyberDome is not the only organization that has taken steps to address the cybersecurity of presidential campaigns.

Microsoft’s 365 for Campaigns tool, part of its Defending Democracy Program, was made available to political campaigns in June. The tool, which campaigns can purchase for $5 per person per month, enables multi-factor authentication on campaign computer systems, along with mobile app protections, and safeguards against email phishing attacks. 

Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs published a “campaign playbook” in late 2017 meant to provide steps that campaigns can use to increase cybersecurity. It was endorsed by the managers of Clinton’s 2016 campaign, and now-Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyThe Hill’s Morning Report – Trump lauds tariffs on China while backtracking from more Democrats criticize Trump response on Hong Kong The Memo: Suburbs spell trouble for Trump MORE’s (R-Utah) 2012 presidential campaign. 

On Wednesday, social media and digital protection group ZeroFOX announced election security help that includes protections for candidates and their digital assets against various forms of cyber attacks. It also includes tools to identify and remove “deepfake” videos, or those that have been altered using artificial intelligence, and the removal of fake or offensive content on candidate’s social media pages. 

There’s also action at the federal level.

In July, the Federal Election Commission approved a request by cybersecurity group Area 1 Security to offer help to federal political candidates and political committees at discounted rates.

On Capitol Hill, Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenBusiness groups to Trump: Tariff delay isn’t enough Democrats give cold shoulder to Warren wealth tax Senate Dems urge Mnuchin not to cut capital gains taxes MORE (D-Ore.), a leading voice on election security issues, introduced legislation in May aimed at securing campaigns. 

His bill, the Federal Campaign Cybersecurity Assistance Act, would allow for national parties to provide cybersecurity assistance to state political parties, to candidates running for office, and for campaigns. 

“The 2016 election made it painfully clear that campaigns need more help defending against sophisticated cyber threats,” Wyden said in a statement when he introduced the bill. “Foreign hackers successfully weaponized hacked emails to drive media coverage in 2016, but the government has done virtually nothing to protect campaigns from future attacks.”

The bill, however, has not moved. It has been referred to the Senate Rules Committee, where Chairman Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntGOP group targets McConnell over election security bills in new ad Budget deal sparks scramble to prevent shutdown GOP punches back in election security fight MORE (R-Mo.) has refused to bring up election security-related legislation because it is unlikely Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellLaw professor: Court-packing should be ‘last resort’ Republican support for gun control dips since Parkland massacre: survey The Hill’s Morning Report – Trump lauds tariffs on China while backtracking from more MORE (R-Ky.) will schedule a floor vote.

Despite this pushback, Morell underlined the importance of addressing the issue of campaign cybersecurity, noting that many countries may seek to interfere in 2020. 

“I think this is extraordinarily important because not only do the Russians continue to do this, but there are a lot of other countries in the world that are trying to get inside these campaigns to … identify avenues of influence,” Morell said.

“To the extent that we can keep them out of the campaigns, the United States can be more secure.”

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