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Some Democrats Lead Trump in Campaign Domain-Security Efforts

Sanders and Trump campaigns lack proper DMARC security enforcement, study finds.

The 2020 Democratic presidential race remains wide open as all eyes are on New Hampshire this week, but some candidates have an edge when it comes to securing their campaigns from phishing and other attacks: About half of them have fully deployed technology to prevent the spoofing of their Internet domains.

Democratic presidential hopefuls Joe Biden (joebiden.com), Mike Bloomberg (mikebloomberg.com), Pete Buttigieg (peteforamerica.com), Tulsi Gabbard (tulsi2020.com), Amy Klobuchar (amyklobuchar.com), Tom Steyer (tomsteyer.com), Elizabeth Warren (elizabethwarren.com), and Andrew Yang (yang2020.com) all have implemented DMARC, the Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting & Conformance protocol that protects organizations from domain-spoofing abuse.

Meanwhile, John Delaney (johndelaney.com), Deval Patrick (devalpatrick2020.com), and Bernie Sanders (berniesanders.com) — as well as President Donald Trump (donaldjtrump.com), the lone Republican candidate — each have adopted DMARC for their domains but only have it running in monitor-only mode, which could allow attackers to deliver emails spoofing the campaign's domain, a new study shows.

Campaigns with no DMARC protection for their domains at all are those of Democratic candidates Michael Bennet (michaelbennet.com) and Bill Weld (weld2020.com) and the former Republican challenger to Trump, Joe Walsh (joewalsh.org), who recently suspended his campaign, leaving their domains wide open for spoofing and abuse, according to security experts.

DMARC, which allows domain owners to control which users can send emails via their domain, is on the rise. According to Valimail, 80% of email inboxes worldwide perform authentication-checks on the sender domain, and the majority of consumer email accounts recognize the DMARC protocol, which currently is in the works as an Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) standard. DMARC specifies and enforces which servers can send messages from a domain, and uses a digital signature validation process to ensure an email is legitimate.

On the recipient side of the equation, that information gets shared with the recipient as well as information on what to do with any unauthorized email. Microsoft Office 365, Google Gmail, and Yahoo all employ DMARC certification.

Seth Blank, director of industry initiatives at anti-phishing vendor Valimail, says email is the first likely step in an attack on election-related systems. "It's easy and effective," he says. "But the good news is that it looks like major presidential campaigns have started to get that message."

In May 2019, Valimail found that just three of 25 presidential campaigns had adopted DMARC. Blank says it's likely the result of raised awareness in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, where breaches of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), and of course, the personal email of John Podesta, former chair of then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's campaign, served as a wake-up call for election security.

No DMARC Easy Button
Properly deploying DMARC is not exactly plug and play, however. It requires identifying who uses which services in an organization, which can be difficult in an ever-changing campaign staff scenario where hiring fluctuates. "DMARC can be hard," Blank says. "Campaigns are turning up email resources all the time," he adds, so setting the email security policy can be challenging for them.

Even DMARC-active domains can have configuration issues: take that of Michael Bloomberg. "The DMARC record for mikebloomberg.com is configured with an enforcement policy, but there is a problem with the underlying SPF record that could cause problems with security, visibility, and deliverability: It exceeds the limit of 10 DNS lookups specified in the SPF standard," Dylan Tweney, vice president of research and communications for Valimail, explained in a blog post today about Valimail's findings.

And while the federal government recently mandated DMARC for all nonmilitary agencies, campaigns are not required by law or regulation to adopt DMARC. "Frankly, it needs to be a minimum standard. It's a known [attack] vector, and you can close it off," Blank notes.

But DMARC handles just one piece of email security. It's designed to thwart phishing that uses spoofed domains, which accounts for half to two-thirds of phishing attacks, Blank says. DMARC does not, however, detect a compromised user email account, nor a malicious insider.

The Mobile, Messaging, and Malware Anti-Abuse Working Group (M3AAWG) advises election officials to not only adopt DMARC but also multifactor authentication for user accounts. "MFA should also be deployed across personal social and communications accounts to ensure that a compromise of a personal account could not be used in a social engineering effort to dupe a colleague in hopes of gaining further access to more sensitive and protected systems," M3AAWG's advisory says. Email messages also should be digitally signed and encrypted in transit, the organization says.

In October, Awake Security found that most of the Democratic candidates, as well as Trump's campaign, had not yet enabled DNSSEC, the protocol for protecting domains from DNS cache-poisoning and hijacking attacks.

Election Disruption Concerns
Blank worries most about a ransomware attack taking down a voter registration or other system this year "at the absolute worst time," hampering voting or transmitting results, he says.

Even the organizers of the famed DEF CON Voting Village have said they're more concerned about managing the risk to the election infrastructure: ensuring there's an audit trail with paper ballots; employing risk-limiting audits (manually checking paper ballots with electronic machine results); and proper security hygiene in voting equipment, systems, and applications.

Christopher Krebs, director of the US Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Agency (CISA) told Dark Reading in an interview at DEF CON in August that he worried about the threat of disruptive attacks on the 2020 election that could shake trust in the election system. "We need to have resilience in place," he said.

Even a small attack or disruption — or even appearance of one — could shake the confidence of the electorate.

Related Content:

Check out The Edge, Dark Reading's new section for features, threat data, and in-depth perspectives. Today's top story: "What Is a Privileged Access Workstation (PAW)?"

Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Executive Editor of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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