Sixteen of the 23 current US presidential campaigns have websites that fail to meet basic privacy standards for user data, a new study by the Internet Society's Online Trust Alliance (OTA) has found.
The audit found that the sites have privacy policies that are poorly written and ambiguous, and they allow visitor data to be shared freely with third parties. Four campaigns had no privacy policies at all, and two did not have any email authentication measures in place to protect users against phishing attacks.
The seven sites that made the cut are those associated with the campaigns of President Donald Trump and Democratic candidates Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Beto O'Rourke, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, and Marianne Williamson. Sites failing the audit included those associated with the campaigns of Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Michael Bennet, and Andrew Yang.
"The number of campaigns that failed to pass the 2020 Presidential Campaign Trust Audit is alarming given the increased attention to privacy and security issues over the last four years," Jeff Wilbur, technical director of the OTA, wrote in a statement.
Sites that OTA audited serve as the primary online presence for the presidential campaigns and are a venue for direct communication with voters, data collection, and fundraising. The weaknesses that OTA uncovered were primarily on the data privacy side and not with site security.
OTA audited the websites and email practices of 2020 US presidential campaigns using the same metrics it uses to evaluate the privacy, security, and consumer protection practices of some 1,200 organizations across multiple sectors.
The audit examined the privacy notices and the data sharing, retention, and third-party tracking polices on the campaign websites. It also examined the websites for security vulnerabilities and for protections such as encryption for securing web sessions and firewalls for blocking threats. In addition, the OTA examined whether the sites used measures such as email authentication and associated technologies to protect users from phishing and other attacks.
Results showed that 70% of the websites are putting visitors at unnecessary risk by not having proper privacy and security mechanisms in place. Twelve campaign sites had privacy policies that failed to give proper notice about data sharing, retention, and use by third parties.
Though third-party tracking on these sites appeared to be minimal, several had privacy statements that allowed the campaigns to share voter data with "like-minded third parties" and unidentified others. The language in the privacy statements effectively put no limits on how the campaigns could use personal data, including donor information, OTA said. Four sites — belonging to candidates Joe Walsh (R), Mark Sanford (R), Tim Ryan (D), and Wayne Messam (D) — had no privacy policies at all. Only one site had language explicitly stating no data would be shared with others.
Troublingly, none of the campaigns had any language indicating how third parties would handle voter data. The absence of such information is a real concern, says Bob Rudis, a cybersecurity researcher and former managing principal of Verizon DBIR. "In an age where our personal information is handed out like Halloween candy, not having strictly enforced policies is an open invitation to misuse and privacy loss," he says.
Website Security Measures
Most presidential campaigns scored relatively well on the website security front, likely because they were built on new, recently secured platforms, OTA said. All of the websites, for instance, used trusted SSL/TLS certificates, and 53% used TLS 1.3, the latest encryption protocol. Fifty-eight percent of the websites used a web application firewall to protect against online threats. The OTA audit did not detect malware on any of the sites.
Those findings are going to be of some relief for those concerned about campaign sites being abused. Sloppily protected sites can cause all sorts of problems for candidates and voters, says Ilia Kolochenko, CEO of ImmuniWeb, a web security company whose tool was used in the OTA research.
"It all depends on the intent of attackers and their eventual goals," Kolochenko says. Scammers can start a fake fund collection campaign to steal money from a candidate by hosting a hidden section on the website with their own bank account. Or a nation-state attacker could breach a candidate's website and use it to spread fake news
Such scenarios may cause considerable damage to democratic processes, Kolochenko notes. "The risks for website users go from theft of their data stored on the website to being infected with drive-by-download malware."
All but two of the campaigns also had email authentication mechanisms in place to protect users against phishing attempts. Eighty-seven percent of the websites used both the Sender Policy Framework (SPF) and DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM) protocols, allowing email recipients to verify the identity of the sender. Sixty-one percent used Domain-Based Authentication, Reporting and Conformance (DMARC) for identifying forged and spoofed emails.
Rudis says the comprehensive use of TLS/SSL configurations across all presidential campaign sites and the above-average use of email safety protocols such as SPF, DKIM, and DMARC is very encouraging. "However, given the myriad hacking issues during the previous major campaign cycle, the fact that only 30% of campaigns made it to the honor roll is a pretty damning statistic," he says.
Digital interaction is the primary method of communication between campaigns and citizens, he notes. "In 2019, there is no excuse for not ticking all the boxes that ensure the security, safety, and privacy in each interaction and for each data element captured."
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