Ex-CIA chief worries campaigns falling short on cybersecurity

Ex-CIA chief worries campaigns falling short on cybersecurity
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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 spokesman for South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegButtigieg surges ahead of Iowa caucuses Overnight Health Care: Cigarette smoking rates at new low | Spread of vaping illness slowing | Dems in Congress push to block Trump abortion rule Ocasio-Cortez jabs 'plutocratic' late entrants to 2020 field 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 Baccio, last week.

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“Hiring a full-time CISO is one way we are protecting against cyberattacks,” 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 cyberattacks.”

The spokesperson emphasized that “whether it's 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 SandersButtigieg surges ahead of Iowa caucuses Biden leads among Latino Democrats in Texas, California On The Money: Trump appeals to Supreme Court to keep tax returns from NY prosecutors | Pelosi says deal on new NAFTA 'imminent' | Mnuchin downplays shutdown threat | Trump hits Fed after Walmart boasts strong earnings MORE (I-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 ClintonJordan calls Pelosi accusing Trump of bribery 'ridiculous' DOJ watchdog won't let witnesses submit written feedback on investigation into Russia probe: report What are Republicans going to do after Donald Trump leaves office? MORE’s 2016 presidential campaign, and an unsuccessful attempt by hackers to access the systems of former Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillGOP senator rips into Pelosi at Trump rally: 'It must suck to be that dumb' Iranian attacks expose vulnerability of campaign email accounts Ex-CIA chief worries campaigns falling short on cybersecurity 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 Julián Castro and of businessman Andrew YangAndrew Yang 2020 Democrats demand action on guns after Santa Clarita shooting Panel devolves over new Russian accusation about Tulsi Yang unveils '21st century approach' to regulating tech MORE were the only campaigns to confirm their attendance.

Despite the strides made by campaigns, Morell says they 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 nonprofit 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 multifactor 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 RomneyOcasio-Cortez jabs 'plutocratic' late entrants to 2020 field Jon Huntsman expected to run for governor in Utah Trump Jr's 'Triggered' debuts at No. 1 on NY Times bestseller list 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 cyberattacks. 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 WydenHillicon Valley: Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract in court | State antitrust investigation into Google expands | Intel agencies no longer collecting location data without warrant Intelligence agencies have stopped collecting cellphone data without warrants: letter Alcohol industry races to save tax break by year-end deadline 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 BluntOvernight Health Care: Cigarette smoking rates at new low | Spread of vaping illness slowing | Dems in Congress push to block Trump abortion rule GOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial Alcohol industry races to save tax break by year-end deadline MORE (R-Mo.) has refused to bring up election security-related legislation because it is unlikely Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellKavanaugh hailed by conservative gathering in first public speech since confirmation Overnight Defense: Erdoğan gets earful from GOP senators | Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract decision in court | Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families On The Money: Trump appeals to Supreme Court to keep tax returns from NY prosecutors | Pelosi says deal on new NAFTA 'imminent' | Mnuchin downplays shutdown threat | Trump hits Fed after Walmart boasts strong earnings 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.”