Former Facebook security chief: hack and leak campaigns are the new normal
- By Derek B. Johnson
- Jun 11, 2019
Facebook's former chief information security officer Alex Stamos said political campaigns must grapple with a new normal where hack and leak campaigns are commonplace. He called on governments to put legal guardrails in place for disinformation and misinformation online.
In a June 10 panel discussion hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center, Stamos said many policymakers have spent so much of their time in government or the private sector, where dedicated IT security teams work to keep their communications and data secure, that they are completely unprepared to put adequate protections in place against sophisticated hackers working for foreign intelligence services when they join or create a political campaign.
"For adversaries at that level, from now on they will always be able to read the email of politically important people in D.C. We will not be able to stop that," said Stamos. "We can marginally reduce that and make sure it's not, like, the entire DNC server, but we're never going to get past the point of them having something."
The comments come after the Cyber Policy Center at Stanford University (where Stamos currently serves as director of the Internet Observatory) unveiled a new report providing a comprehensive assessment of election security. The report includes 45 recommendations for hardening protections around U.S. democracy and spans topics like voting machines and election infrastructure, political campaign cybersecurity, combatting state sponsored disinformation and regulating online political advertising.
The question of how best to secure political campaigns, often defined by their high staff turnover and a startup culture that overlooks or deemphasizes security, has proved to be a challenging problem.
Maciej Ceglowski, owner of the online bookmarking service Pinboard, has spent the past few years organizing a network of volunteer specialists to brief dozens of political campaigns on cybersecurity. The trainings were crafted with the implicit understanding that political and fundraising considerations -- not security -- are the primary driver of a campaign's behavior and that personal accounts were far more valuable to attackers than fundraiser lists, campaign memos and anything else that can be found on internal servers.
"Everything juicy lives in the personal accounts, and moving laterally between those accounts will eventually give you access to [campaign data] anyway, because people are terrible at keeping this stuff separate," Ceglowski wrote.
Until recently, political candidates and members of Congress were restricted from spending federal dollars or campaign donations to address the problem. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) successfully pressed the Federal Elections Commission to allow the reallocation of leftover campaign funds for the purpose of protecting personal electronic devices and accounts. A similar effort is underway to empower the Senate Sergeant at Arms to legally use its resources to do the same for its members.
Another unresolved threat to political candidates come from targeted influence and disinformation campaigns online.
Saleela Salahuddin, cybersecurity policy lead at Facebook, said at an American Bar Association event last month that the company developed algorithms in the wake of the 2016 elections that track, identify and remove accounts or pages based on inauthentic coordinated behavior. By focusing on how a campaign behaves rather than its message, the company hopes it can remove bad actors while sidestepping claims of political bias.
Still, Stamos said this approach only solves the "easy mode" version of the problem. Facebook's own numbers reveal that despite the mass takedowns, fake accounts are more prevalent today on the platform than they were in the past. Governments are putting pressure on platforms to react to misinformation spread on social platforms by groups whose beliefs are widely seen as posing a danger to public safety, such as anti-vaccination groups.
Stamos argued that the onus for crafting official boundaries around online political speech and disinformation on social media platforms should be placed on governments, not the companies. By failing to lay down formal rules, governments are only opening those platforms up to similar backchannel pressure campaigns by authoritarian governments.
"We should not be outsourcing to half-trillion-to-trillion-dollar companies to decide what is acceptable political speech in all of our democracies," he said.
In its report, Stamos' group takes note of the complexities of policing speech, even content generated by foreign adversaries, imposed by the First Amendment. "It will be difficult, as a constitutional matter, to control Americans’ access to such communication on the worldwide web," the authors write.
Stamos warned that Russia's success in social media manipulation and campaign hacking in the 2016 elections augurs further efforts from other nation state rivals and domestic political groups. In particular, he predicted that nations like China and Iran, as well as domestic actors operating under the shield of free speech, will leverage the same tactics..
"The Russian playbook is out there and there is a long history in the cyber conflict-cyber war space…a big powerful country will do something, prove there is a type of attack that is effective, and then that will be picked up by all the smaller countries and possibly even private groups," he said. "If you look at the set of adversaries beyond Russia, clearly there will be the goal of targeting both major political parties in the U.S."
Derek B. Johnson is a former senior staff writer at FCW.