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Keeping Pace With The Threat Of Campaign Hacking


Cybersecurity experts have been running simulations on what could go wrong during the midterm elections next year. They're especially focused on hacks into political campaigns like we saw in 2016. One of the more vulnerable gaps is in the fast-paced, often ephemeral world of congressional campaigns. Charles Lane from member station WSHU reports.

CHARLES LANE, BYLINE: Elaine DiMasi is working the room.

ELAINE DIMASI: We have to keep our green spaces green while we do that. We have to keep the water clean. If we don't do that, all is lost.

LANE: She's at a cocktail party for Democrats on the east end of Long Island. It's a crowded six-way primary, and charming the supporters in this room could make or break her bid for Congress.

DIMASI: The stakes are extremely high. And the guests at this party, they want to find the right candidate who represents their values and can win.

LANE: Shake hands. Recite policy. Hunt for donations. What DiMasi is not thinking about is cybersecurity.

DIMASI: We are trying to create the world's fastest-growing startup company. We're thinking about growth. We're thinking about getting the message out. And we're thinking about how precious our time is.

LANE: Right now DiMasi is building her campaign from a bedroom computer without any IT staff. But even as political campaigns scale up, it's still a shoestring budget. Kevin Tschirhart is a Republican campaign consultant familiar with pinching pennies. He once had an intern return garbage cans because they cost $75.

KEVIN TSCHIRHART: That's 150 mail pieces that could talk to 500 voters. That could end up in lost votes.

LANE: Across the country, thousands of small election campaigns have to make these decisions. Do they spend money on lawn signs or firewalls?

TSCHIRHART: And when we dealt with cybersecurity threats, it was very much a secondary or tertiary concern.

LANE: Both DiMasi and Tschirhart say that last year's Russian hacks into Democratic computers changed their thinking. They're just not sure how to prevent what could become a political nightmare.

ROBBY MOOK: I think we actually saw some versions of a nightmare scenario last year.

LANE: Robby Mook was Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign manager. While hacks into the email account of Clinton's campaign chairman, John Podesta, got most of the headlines, a more troubling incident was when hackers stole documents from the computers of the campaign committee for House Democrats. Those files detailed the weaknesses of a dozen congressional candidates. The documents were leaked and affected at least one congressional race.

MOOK: That obviously creates tremendous headwinds in the campaign. And it could absolutely happen again.

LANE: Mook has since joined forces with his Republican counterpart to write a cybersecurity manual for local campaigns. He says the main obstacle has been getting small campaigns to see themselves as a target for, say, Russian spies.

MOOK: You may not think that your particular race is very important, but someone else might see it as a golden opportunity, again, not to take you on as a candidate, but to create confusion or chaos in the democratic process.

LANE: The national parties have also been racing to get local campaigns prepped. Republicans are training campaign managers in tight races, and the training will include at least some emphasis on cybersecurity. Democrats plan to hire a full-time IT security staffer to work specifically with state parties and campaigns. But IT experts worry that hackers may have already breached some campaigns. For NPR News, I'm Charles Lane.

(SOUNDBITE OF KLINT'S "DIAMOND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Charles is senior reporter focusing on special projects. He has won numerous awards including an IRE award, three SPJ Public Service Awards, a National Murrow, and he was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists.
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