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Report: 2020 Presidential Campaigns Still Vulnerable to Web Attacks

Nine out of 12 Democratic candidates have yet to enable DNSSEC, a simple set of extensions that stops most targeted domain-based attacks.

Gary Golomb

October 23, 2019

5 Min Read

While the Mueller report showed that Russian threat actors hacked the DNC and attempted to influence the 2016 election, very few of the presidential candidates for 2020 seem to have taken the basic steps needed to defend against attacks like the ones that affected the Clinton campaign.

Based on our research, we found that many of the candidates are struggling with one particular issue many businesses face — securing their web properties from being hijacked by malicious actors.

After reading a CNN article on how a majority of candidates were failing to use DMARC to ensure the fidelity of email messages, we conducted research to analyze the web security of the 12 Democratic candidates that participated in the most recent debate and the Trump re-election campaign to see what steps they were taking against malicious attacks.

What we found was dismaying: Nine out of the 12 Democratic candidates and the Trump re-election campaign have yet to enable DNSSEC — a simple set of extensions on top of DNS that stops most targeted domain-based attacks (you can read the full report here).

While the candidates are failing basic security for their web properties, unfortunately, we find this all too often with enterprises as well.

Candidates' Websites Put Staff and Supporters at Risk
Because of the failure to set up DNSSEC, attackers can easily exploit these candidates' website through DNS hijacking or DNS cache poisoning attacks, which can have serious consequences. Just like a business, unprotected web properties put customers, partners, and employees at significant risk.

This is a tactic that is widely employed by attackers. So much so that earlier this year, the DHS recently issued Emergency Directive 19-01 after DNS hijack attacks from Iran affected six federal agencies. These same types of attacks have been used to intercept email from all major providers, including Gmail, Yahoo, and Office365.

DNS cache poisoning allows an attacker to take legitimate traffic intended for one website, for example, https://peteforamerica.com/issues/, and redirect each of those visitors to malicious servers set up to spoof the site and steal information — usernames, passwords, credit cards, personal information, or potential plant fake information, and more.

Here are the three most common ways attackers can weaponize this weakness and use a business's — or presidential candidate's — website to target visitors:

Hyper-targeted phishing campaigns: Spoofing the DNS means that you'll never know if you're visiting a website that is malicious or belongs to the candidate you support. This can result in malware being implanted on an endpoint, or simply having all of the information — usernames, passwords, credit information, and more — stolen. In our scenario above, the domain name in the victim's browser will still be peteforamerica.com, not some typosquat, so you can't really blame the victim.

As attackers gather this data, they can then launch even more targeted phishing campaigns at staff and supporters. As we saw with the Clinton campaign in 2016, it takes one person to click a bad link to put everyone's cybersecurity at risk.

Stealing data from candidate donors and supporters: This is the most common outcome of DNS cache poisoning attacks: setting up a replica website that looks just like the candidate's to trick website visitors. Cyberattackers do this for multiple reasons — but often to steal your data and information. For instance, Kamala Harris highlights how easy it is for supporters to donate to her campaign right on the front page — and every page: https://kamalaharris.org/

Without DNSSEC enabled, hackers can easily take advantage of this to build a replica site, "steal" all traffic, and identify donors and capture financial information.  

Disseminating fake information or implanting spyware, malware, and keyloggers on supporters' devices: Another popular tactic of attackers is to use DNS cache poisoning attacks to create mirror websites that distort the position of the candidate or organization and/or implant all kinds of nasty things on the unsuspecting visitor's device (phone, laptop, iPad, etc.). This could also be used to gain a foothold in one of the candidate's networks.
Perhaps just as important, a collateral finding of this research assessed the security response capabilities of the candidates, or the lack thereof.
We reached out to the candidates and the parties multiple times about these vulnerabilities and the simple remedial steps they should take. Only Senator Warren's campaign employed DNSSEC from the start, and only Beto O'Rourke's campaign responded and changed the security setting after repeated disclosures.

Worse, none of the campaigns even had a dedicated address listed for reporting security issues and concerns.

This was surprising, because fixing this vulnerability is a rather simple process in the scheme of things. All it takes is a few minutes to set up and be configured with your domain host. For instance, Cloudflare makes this possible in a few simple clicks.

If we're going to take a leading role in global cybersecurity, we should start by learning the lessons of 2016. As this research shows, right now we're failing on both sides of the aisle and across both parties. Don't let your business follow suit.

Related Content:

Check out The Edge, Dark Reading's new section for features, threat data, and in-depth perspectives. Today's top story: "Glitching: The Hardware Attack That Can Disrupt Secure Software."

About the Author(s)

Gary Golomb

Co-Founder & Chief Research Officer at Awake Security

Gary Golomb has nearly two decades of experience in threat analysis and has led investigations and containment efforts in a number of notable cases. With this experience — and a track record of researching and teaching state-of-the art detection and response methodologies — Gary is focused on helping Awake improve security craft as the company's Chief Research Officer. Prior to Awake, Gary was one of the first employees at Cylance. He was also a co-founder of Proventsure, which was acquired by Netwitness and ultimately by RSA. He served in the United States Marines 2nd Force Reconnaissance Company.

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