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Rich Barger

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Predicting the 2012 Campaign Compromises

To the American voter, “cyber” issues may not be the hot topic

With the 2012 political season upon us, we have just gained a glimpse of the individual candidates and their cyber policies. It is from those cyber policies that we have also heard the candidates address China; specifically Chinese nation state cyber sanctioned or sponsored espionage.

To the American voter, “cyber” issues may not be the hot topic that the economy, immigration or the presence of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are. However, the candidates and their staffs would benefit by recognizing cyber security is not just a second tier national issue for debate, but a very real problem that they will have to deal with directly in their own campaign’s security posture. The candidates should begin by looking back to the 2008 Obama and McCain campaigns.  For those who can remember, both camps reported that their campaign networks had been compromised.  The FBI and Secret Service both acknowledged the severity of the compromise with one agent telling Obama’s team “You have a problem way bigger than what you understand, you have been compromised, and a serious amount of files have been loaded off your system." Authorities would rule out political opponents suggesting it was a foreign actor seeking to gather information to assess the individual candidates policy positions.  Obama’s technical experts would later speculate that the attackers were either Russian or Chinese.

In May 2009 during his speech on securing national cyber infrastructure, Obama stated “I know how it feels” detailing the events of his campaign compromise, indicating that “our fundraising website was untouched. So your confidential personal and financial information was protected.” Which suggests that the Obama campaign compromise was not financially motivated and that it may have been much more pervasive and in line with what FBI, Secret Service and the technical experts alluded to. Considering that Obama’s or McCain’s campaign documents have never showed up on Wikileaks or otherwise, it is a reasonable assumption that a foreign intelligence service was indeed responsible for the exploitation. In addition, one could also conclude that both incumbent Obama’s and McCain’s domestic and foreign policies would have also been a priority intelligence requirement for a global power such as China or Russia. For a resourced foreign intelligence service to implement Computer Network Exploitation (CNE) as a means to gain raw details of either candidate would have been a trivial effort.  A well crafted, and targeted spearphishing message to a public relations or campaign spokesperson is all a foreign intelligence service needs to establish persistence within campaign networks. The significance of a campaign compromise by a foreign intelligence service would have been very severe. Campaign strategies, embarrassing or compromising information could be obtained to influence a candidate or even leaked in a controlled manner to the media as a means to shape public opinion for or against a particular candidate.

One of the basic tenants of Security Intelligence requires organizations to learn from past and present security events to effectively make timely predictions of future threats in an effort to mitigate risks.  In the case of the upcoming elections, Cyber Squared can assess with high confidence that the 2012 campaigns will most likely experience persistent targeted exploitation attempts, which unfortunately have a high probability of success unless the campaigns are proactive about their security posture against such activities. What is most important is that the candidates are already thinking ahead, not only of how they will protect their own campaign networks but also our Nation’s networks.

More Stories By Rich Barger

Rich is the Chief Intelligence Officer for Cyber Squared and the ThreatConnect Intelligence Research Team (TCIRT) Director.