Barack Obama’s technology chief warned of hackers trying to disrupt elections back in 2013
The CIA and FBI now agree that Russia intervened in the 2016 election, in part to destablise the Democratic party and put President-elect Donald Trump in the White House. Unsurprisingly, Trump himself doesn’t agree, despite literally asking Russian hackers to target Clinton during the campaign.
One person who will be unsurprised by nation-state level hackers looking to attack American elections is Harper Reed. Reed was the chief technologist for Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign, and a 2013 TED Talk he gave has just come to light where – amongst other things – he discusses the likelihood of just such an event happening.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about 2016 and what is going to be important in 2016,” he begins, discussing micro-targeting, media buying efficiency and methods of voter contact. Then he gets on to hacking. “Now this is the one that really scared me: in 2008, both the McCain and Obama campaigns were hacked by a foreign entity. I have no idea who that was.”
“In 2012 – I haven’t seen any articles about this yet, but I’m sure someone can say something at some point in time – we were safe. We were safe because we invested in security. But we went through a lot of tabletop exercises and game days, trying to figure out where the hackers could attack us. And it was scary. They could have really disrupted our process, they could have disrupted our programme, they could have disrupted the election. I don’t think we’re going to be that safe in the future.”
It’s fair to say that Hillary Clinton’s campaign didn’t take cybersecurity anywhere near as seriously as Obama’s 2012 machine. Recently it has come to light that the whole mess of the Podesta emails being leaked may have been down to a simple, avoidable typo and a whole comedy of errors that makes for pretty painful reading.
He actually wasn’t the only one to predict this, with security firm PKWARE suggesting in late January that a presidential campaign would be hacked.
The relevant section begins at 6.19, but the whole talk is worth a watch and is only 7.22 long. One part I found particularly interesting is Reed’s thoughts on talking to changing demographics with tools that were designed for a completely different age.
“I am 34 – I have never mailed anything, I’ve never used a landline and I don’t think I remember the last time I knocked on a door,” he explains. “But that’s traditional voter contact – so how do you talk to someone not like me, but who’s 24? Or who’s going to be 18 at the next election? Or who moves around a lot?”
A great deal of that communication, it turned out, was via social networks such as Facebook. And given the company has been forced into some very public soul searching about how algorithms treat demonstrably false information with the same gravity as fact-checked journalism, I think we can all agree that has worked out brilliantly.