Presidential Conventions Are Prime Target for Hackers

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By Daniel R. Stoller

July 15 — While delegates arrive at the political conventions wearing their elaborate hats and waiving signs for their presidential nominee, little do they realize that they may be targets of a cyberattack, privacy and security professionals told Bloomberg BNA.

The Republican and Democratic presidential conventions will host political dignitaries, celebrities, delegates, presidential nominees and even hackers. Just like any large event, the size and scope of the nominating conventions make them prime targets for cyberattacks, privacy and security pros said.

These hackers may be hacktivists that hijack Twitter to send political messages or cybercriminals that attempt to make big bucks off ransomware attacks, phishing schemes or other cyberattacks. Regardless of the intent of hackers, the U.S. Secret Service, in conjunction with other law enforcement agencies and event security, will try to thwart cybersecurity threats.

“Massively popular events that take place on a global stage” will cause “hacktivists with a political agenda” to attempt a cyberattack with maximum impact, Neill Feather, president of cybersecurity company SiteLock, said.

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Law enforcement agencies and corporate security will rapidly share threat information to try to stop attacks. However, “it's not a matter of if a cyberattack will happen at a large event, it's when,” Feather said.

For now all is quiet as the start dates for the conventions approach. The Republican presidential convention begins July 18 in Cleveland and the Democratic convention starts July 25 in Philadelphia.

The political parties aren't the only targets that need to prepare for a cyberattack. Fortune 500 corporations in the cities hosting the conventions don't want to be collateral damage from the concentration of hackers surrounding the conventions. Companies must also step up their cybersecurity to limit cyberattacks on customer data, trade secrets and employee data.

Wide Variety of Possible Attacks

If a cyberattack hits either of the political conventions it may come in a variety of ways.

Jeremy Samide, chief executive officer of Ohio-based cybersecurity company Stealthcare, said that there may be phishing or denial of service (DDoS) attacks, website defacements or malware injections.

Although the focus of the cyberattacks will be on “the low hanging fruit: the delegates,” hackers will still be aiming to “destroy and disrupt data from either party at the top,” he said. If a hacker is able to infect just one delegate's computer or phone, they may be able “run rampant” infecting others devices with malware, he said.

Obtaining political campaign data, much like the recent hack on the Democratic National Committee that revealed secret files on Republican nominee Donald Trump (119 PRA, 6/21/16), would be the “crown jewel” for hackers, Samide said.

Feather said that the conventions have “mass amounts of data that can be leaked or sold, making them an attractive target for cybercriminals.”

Additionally, because the conventions draw such a large audience, the impact of such an attack is immeasurable, he said. If the hackers are successful, “they may be capable of exploiting communications servers that could shut an entire event down,” Feather said.

Secret Surveillance

The Department of Homeland Security designated the Republican and Democratic conventions as National Special Security Events.

If an event receives this designation “the U.S. Secret Service takes the lead on security,” both physical and cybersecurity, Morgan Finkelstein, deputy press secretary for the Democratic National Convention Committee (DNCC) told Bloomberg BNA.

For the Democratic convention, “the DNCC security team meets regularly with” law enforcement and the Secret Service to coordinate a comprehensive plan to limit any attack at the convention site, she said.

Andrew Binns, chief innovation officer for the DNCC, told Bloomberg BNA that the “safety and security” of delegates is a “top priority” and “when it comes to cybersecurity, we work with industry experts to utility diversity, redundancy and equipment and network testing to keep our assets safe.”

The Republican National Committee didn't return several attempts by Bloomberg BNA to solicit their comment on convention cybersecurity.

Samide said that the Secret Service and other law enforcement agencies “have a tremendous challenge in dealing with the influx of people heading to either of the conventions.” To help quell any cyberattack “they will be using technology to monitor activity and to detect rouge signals and communications.”

Law enforcement officials were mum on which surveillance methods they would use—for good reason—but looking at past large events, the methods become quite clear.

David Kennedy, founder and chief executive officer of Ohio-based cybersecurity firm TrustedSec, said that law enforcement may use “Stringrays, drones, snipers, license plate scanners and other mass surveillance methods.” Also, law enforcement will be diligent in stopping personal use of drones.

Corporate Security a Must

The potential cybersecurity threat for companies in the host cities shouldn't be dismissed.

Feather said that it is “important to cover all ground and have the best cybersecurity measures in place.” Businesses need to make sure that “all devices and web applications are secure” because poor web security is an “easy way into an organization's network.”

Kennedy said that companies should also have a proper incident response plan in place in case of an attack. “Local businesses need to step up their security and have specific plans in place to respond accordingly to limit” employee and customer data breaches, he said.

Information Sharing to the Rescue?

Companies located in Cleveland and Philadelphia may get a step ahead of the hackers by sharing information amongst each other and with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and local law enforcement.

Samide said that cybersecurity information shared with the Department of Justice or the FBI may help limit cyberattacks by alerting them to potential hackers and threat vectors.

Kennedy agreed that information sharing is crucial in stopping cyberattacks. Specifically, the FBI “is very good at actively looking for threats” and sharing them with companies.

And as a bonus, private entities that “promptly” share their cyberthreat data with the government may receive immunity from any public or private cause of action under the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA) (116 PRA, 6/16/16).

To contact the reporter on this story: Daniel R. Stoller in Washington at dstoller@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Donald G. Aplin at daplin@bna.com

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