The Cable

Spy Chief: Hackers Are Targeting Clinton and Trump Campaigns

The pace of attacks will only pick up as the election drags on.

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Hillary Clinton spends her days attacking Donald Trump. Donald Trump spends his attacking Hillary Clinton. Hackers are attacking them both.

With six months to go until the general election, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said Wednesday that U.S. spies have already picked up “some indications” that the campaigns are being targeted online.

And as the election season heats up, the American intelligence community expects the hacking will only get worse. “I anticipate as the campaigns intensify we’ll probably get more of it,” Clapper said, speaking at an event hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Those hackers may be working on behalf of foreign governments, continuing a pattern seen in other recent presidential campaigns. In 2008, an attack that originated in China penetrated the computer systems of both the McCain and Obama campaigns and reportedly succeeded in stealing significant quantities of files. According to Newsweek’s Evan Thomas, the attack on Obama targeted policy information and was carried out by what the FBI told the campaign was a “foreign entity.” The attacks on Obama and McCain sought to obtain “information that might be useful in any negotiations” in future negotiations with them, once in power in the White House, Thomas reported.

In 2012, hackers repeatedly targeted the Obama and Romney camps, according to Time. Those attacks included attempts by the Anonymous hacking collective to bring down their websites using distributed denial of service attacks. Sophisticated spear-phishing attempts tried to gain wide-ranging access to their computer systems, an attack that could have been the work of hackers plying their trade on behalf of a nation-state. Criminal groups tried to steal credit card data of donors.

Presidential campaigns represent lucrative sources of both information and money. As campaigns rack up donors, they may also accumulate credit card information and personal data. Databases of such information can be sold for significant sums on the criminal underground or be used to perpetrate fraud. The Clinton campaign has already raised $213 million, including $26.4 million in April alone; Trump is certain to raise hundreds of millions of dollars more.

Once Clinton and Trump are formally nominated by their respective party conventions, meanwhile, they will begin receiving briefings from the U.S. intelligence community. By targeting the campaigns’ computer systems, hackers could access sensitive U.S. assessments about foreign adversaries and world events.

Hackers working on behalf of foreign countries are likely also curious about a political phenomenon that their capitals have so far struggled to understand. Trump’s strange brew of racist populism, trade protectionism, isolationism, and belligerence has left foreign leaders wondering whether he would as president radically reshape America’s relationship with the world.

Clapper said Wednesday that the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security “are doing what they can” to help the campaigns improve their computer security, but there’s good reason to believe the campaigns are likely underinvesting in keeping their data and emails safe. Campaigns typically run on tight budgets and are managed by individuals more focused on delivering votes than keeping email servers safe. Presented with a choice to plow money into voter turnout or cybersecurity, the choice for a cash-strapped campaign is obvious.

Which all just means Clinton and Trump are two very juicy targets.

Photo credit: SCOTT OLSON/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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