U.S. Intelligence Chief Warns Hackers May Be Spying On Presidential Candidates

May 30, 2016
Originally published on May 30, 2016 7:31 pm
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No matter how they use technology, the presidential candidates are targets online. Hackers have broken into campaign websites before, and the country's top intelligence official says they are probably doing it this year, too. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: In each of the last two presidential campaigns, the candidates had their websites hacked. And in answer to a question earlier this month, the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, says to expect more of the same.

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JAMES CLAPPER: We've already had some indications of that. And a combination of DHS and FBI are doing what they can to educate both campaigns against a potential cyberthreat. So I anticipate as the campaigns intensify we'll probably have more of it.

NAYLOR: The culprits are likely both domestic groups and foreign governments. James Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says among the usual suspects are the Chinese.

JAMES LEWIS: One way to think about this is that the Chinese think "House Of Cards" describes how American politics actually works. So they're going into these databases, into these websites looking for corruption, looking for things that they can use for political or an intelligence advantage. And of course, the Russians are doing it, too.

NAYLOR: Lewis says they're interested in things like lists of donors and how much they gave, and other inside information.

LEWIS: What the candidates really think as opposed to what they say in public. They've done this before. It's kind of par for the course.

NAYLOR: In the most egregious example, hackers in 2012 were able to shut down Republican Mitt Romney's site for several hours. Brian Donahue, a political consultant and CEO of Craft Media/Digital, says such a disruption can wreak havoc.

BRIAN DONAHUE: That would be very costly to a campaign. For one, they can't disseminate information, they can't speak with the volunteers in their base, they can't sign people up and they can't take donations. So that would be a real disruption.

NAYLOR: Already, in this campaign season, the hacktivist (ph) group Anonymous declared cyberwar on Donald Trump because of some of his positions.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Greetings, citizens of the world. We are Anonymous. Donald Trump, it has come to our attention that you wish to ban all Muslims from entering the United States. Muslims and Islam are not the problem.

NAYLOR: Because of his widespread business empire, Trump presents a big target for hackers, according to John Dickson. He is with the Denim Group, a computer security firm.

JOHN DICKSON: To use a technical term, Donald Trump's attack surface is much broader than that of the other campaigns. There's no doubt about it. And if you are a hacktivist like Anonymous, you can get headlines by attacking indirectly any of the properties, any of the hotels that Donald Trump has and effectively have the same effect as hitting the actual campaign site.

NAYLOR: Dickson says it's troubling that presidential campaigns can be so easily disrupted.

DICKSON: Be it a foreign government or potentially a hacktivist organization, if they can directly or indirectly influence this very, very interesting election via some type of attack, that's worrisome.

NAYLOR: Dickson and the experts say the presidential campaigns need to take the threat of hackers seriously by, among other things, keeping their security up-to-date and using encryption to protect the data not just of their campaign, but of their donors and supporters. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.