Securing the Campaign 3: Types of Technological Threats Being Faced

Ben Hagen’s main focus in this section is on the overview of technological hazards that the election headquarters were facing at the campaign.

Role of technology in political campaigns, in New York Times terms The role technology played in the election – people often quoted it as being a force multiplier. What that means is somebody who can call 100 people on their phone in a day, through the aid of technology we should be able to increase that; we should be able to increase their effectiveness. So, if they’re calling 100 people, we can make sure that people they’re talking to are more easily persuadable, or that they can actually call more people through the aid of technology.

Basic technological stats on the recent campaign This all (see right-hand image) occurred in less than 2 years, so the campaign got off its feet in early 2011, and, of course, ended in November 2012. That’s just around the 583 day mark; we built most of the applications from scratch, deployed everything in new environments, ended up using Amazon web services for almost everything we did. On the weeks running up to the election we would have around 200 to 300 instances running at a time. That would jump, according to Peak Traffic, up into the thousands of instances, so that’s a large, complicated environment.

Basically, we had deployments in several different availability zones; those are different data centers. All of these things are interconnected, lots of very interesting applications. One that was most talked about is called Narwhal; it’s kind of a big data backend system that collects data, normalizes it, does processing, does interesting analytics, and acts as an API for some of the other applications within the campaign.

We also developed what we called Online Field Office, the Dashboard: essentially, it’s a fully independent social network that had a lot of the same capabilities you would see in Facebook or any other social media application, but it was meant to help people organize online and communicate the campaign goals and activities through people according to region, neighborhood or interest; you could kind of group people and choose how your communications went out. Really interesting stuff.

We also had call tools, which enable you to log onto website, and then, if you’re interested in volunteering for the campaign, you can make phone calls to potential voters and try and talk them into voting for Obama or confirming that they are interested in Obama, or trying to help them vote, that kind of thing. Not everything ended up being super popular, but a lot of these things were very effective, so the call tool, for example, on election day – over a million calls were made just through that one tool. We also had single sign-on services, a bunch of different stuff.

Chicago’s technology team Here is the technology team in Chicago (see left-hand image). That’s the famous Bean in Chicago – if you’ve never been there, I highly recommend visiting, it’s a great city. Most of these guys are from different start-ups throughout the country. Almost everybody who joined the team ended up getting a significant pay cut, just to take advantage of the opportunity to work on this campaign and to do some groundbreaking stuff. I wouldn’t say that everybody was entirely politically motivated; I think a lot of us were motivated by the opportunity to work with the great team and to work on really interesting problems.

Main categories of threats to tackle So, moving on to threats. As this role of technology increased and as we used it on a more day-to-day basis within the campaign, we began to think of the different threats we faced, or the actors that were doing these or making security problems for us, into 5 different categories: nation states, organized crime, hacktivists category, political opponents, and kind of a generic – attacks of opportunity (see image to the right).

In the nation state range it kind of goes back to 2008, where the systems were compromised probably for the intended purpose of stealing economic or foreign policy information. Nation state actors are kind of that classic, what people call “advanced persistent threat”: basically, motivated opponents who are willing to spend large amounts of resources and time to compromise the system.

Organized crime doesn’t necessarily mean the mafia or something, but kind of the typical criminal resources intent on stealing money, probably. So, at the campaign we had a lot of money: over a billion dollars came in, we took a lot of credit card transactions, we took a lot of donations. We had an online e-commerce store. Obviously, all of that can be a target for typical criminal activity with the intent of stealing money, stealing credit card numbers, that kind of thing. Most of the threats we saw from that were kind of the typical web scanning, attacks on the actual infrastructure itself, SQL injection, that kind of thing. Thankfully, we’re not aware of anything actually working against us, which is great.

It’s really not in the interest for either campaign to attack each other.

Hacktivism, this is kind of the Anonymous threat that people talk about. Most of the things we see there are denial-of-service with the intent of making a political statement, or attempts to compromise the system, steal the information and then publish it with the intent of calling notice to some sort of political cause or something like that. You know, sort of the typical modus operandi for Anonymous is to steal information, publish it on Pastebin, and then say: “Hey, look, these people suck. Don’t vote for them”, or “Read our message”, etc.

Political opponents – I’m not necessarily talking about the Republican Party in this case; I’m talking about activists who are against Obama. It’s really not in the interest for either campaign to attack each other; that would be really big news or problems if that ever came to light, so we weren’t really worried about that. We were worried about political activists kind of stating protests or trying to cause sabotage or fraud within our online systems.

And finally, attacks of opportunity, and this is kind of the general bucket. If you have a server on the Internet, even if you’re not any particular target, you’re going to get attacked by the background noise of people scanning the Internet for vulnerabilities. And this is usually people looking for vulnerabilities in commonly deployed software: phpMyAdmin, different Java exploits, different framework exploits, that kind of scanner activity that isn’t really looking for you, but it’s looking for anything it can exploit. So, always worry about that as well.

Possible threat effects In terms of the effect these have on the campaign, we were obviously worried about theft: that’s theft of money, theft of information, theft of sensitive documents, that kind of thing. We’re particularly sensitive to sabotage, especially during key moments of the campaign, for example, during debates or during Election Day. If you’re able to impact the availability of systems, you can have a noticeable effect on how efficiently we’re able to contact people, or how efficiently we’re able to take donations, etc. So, we’re really interested in preventing attempts of sabotage. And finally, political statements: these are the people looking to deface our website or put a message online.

Read previous: Securing the Campaign 2: The Role of Technology in 2008 and 2012 Election Campaigns

Read next: Securing the Campaign 4: Risk Mitigation

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