FBI to political campaigns: Up your 'cyber hygiene'

Saturday, September 1, 2018

With the clock ticking down to the 2018 midterm elections, the FBI has published a series of instructional videos aimed at political campaigns with an urgent message: it's time to up your cybersecurity game.

The initiative, called Protected Voices, is part of a larger online effort by the bureau to educate campaigns and the public about cyberattacks and the dangers of foreign influence on the U.S. democratic system.

"One key to addressing this threat is for a campaign to enhance its own cyber hygiene, the technological equivalent of locking your doors and windows," says the Protected Voices site, which went live Friday. The site hosts a dozen videos starring FBI special agents and technical specialists covering everything from best Wi-Fi practices to securing campaign communications.

Top U.S. security officials have offered dire warnings about the potential for hacking and influence campaigns targeting the 2018 election, similar in fashion if not scale to the attack the Russian government purportedly launched on the 2016 presidential election. That attack, according to the U.S. intelligence community assessments and more recent court documents, included the hacking of political organizations and an online influence campaign designed to spread propaganda and sow divisiveness among the U.S. electorate.

"We continue to see a pervasive messaging campaign by Russia to try to weaken and divide the United States," Director of National Security Dan Coats told reporters last month. Russia has denied the hacking and influence campaign allegations.

"Foreign influence operations - which include covert actions by foreign governments to influence U.S. political sentiment or public discourse - are not a new problem," the FBI says on the broader Combating Foreign Influence website. "But the interconnectedness of the modern world, combined with the anonymity of the Internet, have changed the nature of the threat and how the FBI and its partners must address it."

Social media giants Facebook and Twitter have been waging a running battle against foreign influence operations and Microsoft recently identified what appeared to be an attempted spear-phishing plot targeting conservative institutions and the U.S. Senate.

Though much has been said about securing the election process itself, it's political campaigns that will likely be the "primary focus" of any malicious actors ahead of an election, according to former National Security Agency official Oren Falkowitz.

"It's the most serious thing out there," said Falkowitz, now CEO of the anti-phishing cybersecurity firm Area 1 Security. "There's no question that campaigns are at the center of elections and cybersecurity."

Falkowitz said he thought it was "novel and important" that the FBI was doing what it could to get the word out to campaigns specifically about dangers in cyberspace, but he said it would ultimately be up to the campaigns to take the technological and practical steps necessary to protect themselves.

"'Education and awareness' is the 'thoughts and prayers' of cybersecurity," he said.

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