As presidential candidates tack and weave through their primary races and toward their upcoming party conventions, the eyes of voters—and indeed, the eyes of the world—are on them. But a few groups are watching especially closely.
Hackers have been spying on candidates and their campaigns, said James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, during an event at the Bipartisan Policy Center on Wednesday. And the hackers may be on foreign governments’ payroll.
The FBI and the Homeland Security Department have met with campaigns to educate them about the threats and help counter them. There have already been signs of hacking attempts, Clapper said, and “we’ll probably have more.”
Hackers and spies have targeted campaigns since at least 2008. Earlier this month, the Office of the Director of National Security declassified a slide deck presented to the Obama administration shortly after he was first elected, titled “How to Use the Intelligence Community.” That deck included a warning that foreign intelligence services “have been tracking this election cycle like no other.”
Spies overseas “exploited technology to get otherwise sensitive data,” the document said, and would likely keep trying to infiltrate networks with malware and viruses.
It’s no surprise that the presidential campaign is under scrutiny, or even that foreign actors are trying to glean inside information on the people who are vying to become the president of the U.S. for the next four or eight years.
The U.S. routinely spied on foreign leaders’ electronic and voice communication, as documents leaked by Edward Snowden showed, including those of close allies like French President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. (President Barack Obama promised to stop spying on allied leaders after the revelations.) One can only assume that NSA and CIA are also digging into key campaigns abroad.
But questions remain as to how well equipped U.S. campaigns are to ward off hackers’ attacks. Anonymous has repeatedly targeted Donald Trump and his real-estate empire—albeit with little success—and a report card of several candidates’ websites from the InfoSec Institute gave both Trump’s and Hillary Clinton’s campaigns a “B” for cybersecurity.
Hackers could glean a range of sensitive information, from close contacts to potentially embarrassing internal communications, by gaining access to campaign servers or networks. But during the next stage of the campaign, the stakes will be much higher: Party nominees begin to receive classified intelligence briefings months before the general election.
The White House said earlier this month that both parties’ candidates will begin receiving these briefings after the Republican convention in July. At that point, Trump, Clinton (presumably) and their teams will be in possession of much more valuable information, but won’t yet have the full cybersecurity support of the federal government. If hackers gain access to the campaign then—or if they already have access—the potential damage of an intrusion would be much greater.