Clinton Campaign Tested Staffers With Fake Phishing Emails

Campaign stressed good IT hygiene, according to manager Robby Mook, who said the fake phishing emails were used to gauge effectiveness of security training for staffers,

4 Min Read

RSA CONFERENCE – San Francisco – Email leaks notwithstanding, Hillary Clinton's campaign manager Robby Mook says the campaign conducted regular security training for staffers, which included sending fake phishing emails to campaign staffers to see how they'd be handled.

"We sent out phishing emails of our own to test people and communicate back to team to see how far they were clicking, to educate people, and show their vulnerability and how much their choices matter," Mook said in an interview at RSA Conference. He recalls at least three faux-phishing tests, adding there may have been more.

Mook says the campaign also emailed staffers regularly about good IT hygiene. "We had signs up in the bathrooms about not sharing passwords and 'Don't click on that link, stop and think'," Mook says. Staff meetings also included regular security updates from the campaign's IT director, he adds.

Mook made the rounds at the RSA Conference here this week, speaking about user vulnerability to inside attacks and speaking at the Global Insider Threat Summit sponsored by security vendor Dtex Systems.

Mook also wants to make clear that it was the Democratic National Committee's servers that were hacked, not those of the Clinton campaign. The distinction is important; the campaign suffered from emails that were leaked from personal email accounts, notably, those from candidate Clinton, campaign chairman John Podesta, and other staffers. Hackers may have been helped by real phishing emails that Podesta or other users clicked on, and ultimately gave up addresses and passwords.

The DNC, separate from the Clinton campaign, had its servers hacked sometime in 2016; WikiLeaks published excerpts in July.

"We reminded people to keep [campaign] information out of their personal accounts," Mook told Dark Reading. And they tried to encourage use of two-factor authentication and stronger passwords. The campaign also encouraged people to use texting when they didn't want something showing up in email, Mook says.

What happened to the Clinton campaign wasn't the result of malicious insiders but rather staffers clicking on a bad link, and the organization's inability to mitigate an inside threat, Mook adds.

Some 68% of breaches can be traced back to some kind of employee negligence, says Dtex CEO Christy Wyatt. Her company teamed with Ponemon Research on a study called 2016 Costs of Insider Threats that surveyed 240 IT and security professionals.

But whether it's a national political campaign, state or local governments or even SMBs, there's not enormous sensitivity to the threat level that cyberattacks pose, Mook says. "Campaigns are money-strapped and security got pushed down - but that won't be the case in the future," he adds.

Political figures are vulnerable and prone to these sorts of online attacks. "They need to plan for the most aggressive attacks," Mooks says.

Had the DNC been outfitted with a more robust system to monitor for inside threats, they may have caught the breach sooner, Mook claims. "The potential to disrupt like the Russians did is huge. We have to take steps to prevent that sort of thing from happening again."

Mook believes there's genuine bipartisan interest in security, pointing across the aisle to recent comments from Republican Senators John McCain, Mike McCall, and Marco Rubio. "If anyone is concerned about this, it's politicians themselves," Mook says. "They understand they may be the ones hurt tomorrow" by careless insiders, bad actors, and breaches.

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About the Author(s)

Terry Sweeney, Contributing Editor

Terry Sweeney is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor who has covered technology, networking, and security for more than 20 years. He was part of the team that started Dark Reading and has been a contributor to The Washington Post, Crain's New York Business, Red Herring, Network World, InformationWeek and Mobile Sports Report.

In addition to information security, Sweeney has written extensively about cloud computing, wireless technologies, storage networking, and analytics. After watching successive waves of technological advancement, he still prefers to chronicle the actual application of these breakthroughs by businesses and public sector organizations.

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