Securing the Campaign by Ben Hagen

Ben Hagen, an acclaimed security consultant from the US who ran Application Security for the Obama re-election campaign, delivers a talk at the 29th Chaos Communication Congress event to share his insider’s view of the recent Presidential Election campaigns from a security perspective.

Ben Hagen Hello everybody! I’m really excited to talk to you guys about security and political campaigns. I had the fortune to run the Application Security Department for the Obama 2012 campaign, and I think we can all agree that technology has an ever-increasing importance in politics in general, but especially in political campaigns. Certainly, in the US we now see lots of money-changing hands over the Internet; we see lots of community building, lots of communication, lots of advertising. Basically, technology is a really big part of campaigns in the US, but I think also across the world.

Things to be touched upon So, today we’re going to talk about a lot of different things (see right-hand image). I’ll give you some very brief background about myself. We’ll then talk about the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns; what kind of role technology played in those; and the importance of security. Then we’re going to get into the threats in terms of the threat actors and the actual threats that they might be posing to campaigns; and then talk about the technicalities of enterprise security, cloud security, application security at campaigns. So, let’s get started.

University specializing in a weird mix of subjects So, me: I went to university; I was at university in the US, it’s kind of in the middle of nowhere. It’s famous for agriculture, veterinary medicine, and computer engineering, which is a really odd combination. As an undergraduate I actually chose to study political science and Mandarin Chinese, which, you know, obviously “fits” into the veterinary sciences and computer engineering, but upon graduating I didn’t really get into the jobs I was expecting to, so I went back to school for a Master’s of Science in Information Assurance, which is a fancy way to say computer security, with the computer engineering department. They have a really great program that teaches you the fundamentals of security all the way through the stack, basically. I had always been a computer hobbyist, so it wasn’t a big transition for me, but it was a great experience.

A fairly typical scene in the Security Operation Center After university I got into the Security Operation Center of a Fortune 100 company. We did monitoring for their organization, but also for their customers, and that kind of thing. And if you’ve ever seen the movie War Games, the big missile command screens that you see in the back of it with everybody sitting in front, that’s basically the environment we worked in. We were monitoring networks for security incidents, doing investigation, kind of cracking through millions of events a day trying to find things that were bad. I started off as an analyst, and then I got into some development work, doing automation, ticket management, and the like.

Yet another activity Ben Hagen was engaged in After a couple of years of that I got into security consulting, which is great, because you get to see the problems that lots of different people have with security. You get to go from organization to organization, talk to them about their problems, talk to them about how you can solve their problems; you get to find problems and you usually don’t have to fix them, which is kind of the sweet spot, right? It’s always fun to point things out and not be responsible for what happens afterward. In security consulting I did a lot of penetration testing, a lot of application assessments, specifically lots of web application assessments.

I’ve been based out of Chicago for about 8 or 9 years, I think. Chicago is a pretty interesting place to be in technology. The technology community there is pretty small, we all kind of know each other, and after doing about 3 or 4 years of consulting, I was having dinner with a bunch of friends in technology in Chicago, one of whom had recently started as the CTO for the Obama 2012 re-election campaign.

The dialog that served as a starting point for further engagements We started talking about his role in the campaign and what he was doing, and he told me that he would often have trouble sleeping at night, because they’re basically developing, or were planning to develop at this point, lots of really great new technology for the campaign; kind of like exciting stuff in terms of community building, communication, data, big data analytics, and that kind of stuff. And he was kind of worried about the role security would play in all of this. He was worried that we would be a big target; that the hackers of the world would be after us and that they could ruin the whole thing for him.

Naively, in response I said that I thought I could help them with that. And a couple of months afterwards I joined the campaign as a Senior Application Security Engineer, which is a little misleading, because I was the only application security person, or the only full-time security person within the entire campaign.

Obama's election headquarters in Chicago So, I was there by my lonesome self, figuring out what security meant here and how we could go about solving those issues. Here is a picture of the headquarters in Chicago (see left-hand image); this does not look like any office I ever worked in. That was an incredibly dynamic shoestring budget kind of environment, where lots of young people come in really excited to work there. It was really interesting, because this is the only place I worked where people were genuinely excited to come to work every day. And a lot of that is because they were working, obviously, for somebody they believed in, but they were also there because of the challenges we were facing; everybody was kind of enjoying cutting-edge stuff, whether it was in technology, communication, advertising – everybody was doing something new, so it was really great to work in that kind of environment.

Main role of an application security person As the application security person, I had a lot of different roles there, so I was part of the technology team that developed applications, deployed them to the Internet, and I was responsible for making sure that our software that we were developing and deploying was secure – basically, that we didn’t get hacked into. That involved managing a secure development life cycle, doing application audits, application assessments, doing monitoring on our deployments, and kind of everything involving applications.

I also helped out with the enterprise security, which is sort of the traditional IT role that you see in the organization: headquarters networking, email, secure architecture of our field office networks, and that kind of thing. I helped deploy the IDS (Intrusion Detection System) within our headquarters, did monitoring on it, did training of people, helped people understand what security meant within the organization, acting as a general resource for security.

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

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