On the eve of Super Tuesday, one security researcher is asking a simple question: Just how safe are the candidates' online campaign and contribution sites?
The answers suggest there is cause for concern.
Presidential campaign computer systems and Websites, many of them built quickly by IT volunteers in temporary facilities, may be easy targets for vandalism and theft, according to Oliver Friedrichs, director of emerging technologies at Symantec's Security Response unit.
Friedrichs will publish his findings in an upcoming Symantec security book and will discuss them in a presentation at the Black Hat DC briefings in Washington later this month.
In an interview, Friedrichs said he began the research because he saw that the 2008 presidential candidates were relying much more heavily on Internet contributions and information distribution than they had in the 2004 campaign. "If this can't be done securely, voters may lose confidence in their ability to get information or make contributions online," he said.Both Ron Paul and John Edwards had days when they collected more than $3 million in donations on the Web, most of them in small increments of less than the $2,300 individual campaign donation limit.
In his research, Friedrichs found that many of the candidates had not done an adequate job of researching and registering potential domain names that supporters or contributors might encounter by mistake. These domains might easily be registered by detractors or identity thieves, a practice known widely as "typosquatting."
"We looked at sites like 'muttromney.com' and 'hillaryclingon.com,' and we found that only a couple of the 19 candidates who began the race had protected themselves," Friedrichs said. "Some of the typo sites were owned by advertisers, or even detractors of the candidate."
A phisher could easily set up a credible-looking site on one of these typo domains and solicit contributions from visitors, essentially stealing or rerouting the money from the candidate, Friedrichs explained. "Detractors of the candidate could set up the sites to spread misinformation, spyware, or even malware," he said.
Such attacks would not be unprecedented, Friedrichs warned. In the 2004 campaign, phishers found a way to reroute some of John Kerry's traffic to a different Website, he warned.
Other attacks might also be possible, Friedrichs stated. Researchers earlier this year discovered a cross-site scripting vulnerability in Mitt Romney's Website that might have allowed an attacker to alter the content on the site, he said. "Something like that could allow a detractor to make a subtle change in the candidate's stance on, say, abortion," Friedrichs said. "We haven't seen it done yet, but it certainly is possible."
Of course, some sites may also be open to more traditional political attacks, such as defacement or denial of service, Friedrichs observed. Joe Lieberman's campaign experienced such an attack in 2006, he noted. "It essentially paralyzed the campaign systems and froze email as well -- the campaign workers had to use their personal accounts to keep things going."
The problem, in part, is that most candidates don't have many IT resources, Friedrichs observed. In the early stages of a campaign, many candidates rely on volunteers or third-party services that might not know their systems. But as candidates collect more and more of their contributions online, these hastily laid IT infrastructures may become increasingly attractive targets for thieves or attackers, he says.
So far, Friedrichs hasn't found any evidence to suggest that candidates or their campaign staffs are intentionally trying to sabotage their opponents' sites or redirect their contributions. "I think what we've seen so far has been perpetrated by extremists or actual thieves," he said.
Friedrichs has not done any research yet into the much-ballyhooed topic of voting machine fraud, either through local or remote hacks. Earlier this year, a report suggested that voting machine hacks may have helped Hillary Clinton win the New Hampshire primary, in which Barack Obama was heavily favored. (See Did Hackers Win It for Hillary?)
"There's been so much research on the voting machine issue that I wasn't sure we could add anything to that," he said. "But the whole question of vulnerabilities in campaign systems really hasn't gotten much attention."
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Symantec Corp. (Nasdaq: SYMC)