By Thomas Claburn
October 10, 2007
Cybercriminals could imperil the 2008 presidential election and the U.S
political process, according to a forthcoming book.
Titled Crimeware  and edited by Markus Jakobsson, a professor at the
Indiana University School of Informatics, and Zulfikar Ramzan, senior
principal security researcher with Symantec (NSDQ: SYMC), the book
details various forms of cybercrime. It is scheduled for publication in
The book's 10th chapter, Cybercrime and the Electoral System , by
Oliver Friedrichs, director of emerging technologies at Symantec
Security Response, explores the risks cybercrime poses to U.S.
"It is important to understand the associated risks as political
candidates increasingly turn to the Internet to more effectively
communicate their positions, rally supporters, and seek to sway
critics," writes Friedrichs. "These risks include among others the
dissemination of misinformation, fraud, phishing, malicious code, and
the invasion of privacy. Some of these attacks, including those
involving the diversion of online campaign donations have the potential
to threaten voters' faith in our electoral system."
In a phone interview, Friedrichs said that he believes the threat is
significant and pointed to past elections that have felt the effects of
cybercrime. "In 2004, phishers targeted the Kerry-Edwards campaign,
which at the time was really seen as one of the campaigns that led the
way in using the Internet to communicate with constituents."
There were at least two phishing attacks that targeted that campaign,
said Friedrichs. One of them was a fairly traditional attack that tried
to solicit money in the name of the candidates. The other tried to
convince recipients of phishing e-mails to call a 900 number. Calling
the number resulted in an unexpected $1.99 charge.
"Four years later, it's a much different time," said Friedrichs.
"Phishing itself has grown into an epidemic, and we see over 1,000
phishing campaigns every single day. So the potential for phishing to
manifest itself is fairly high."
That's demonstrated by the high number of typo domains that have been
registered. Such sites receive traffic from Web visitors who misspell or
mistype legitimate campaign Web site addresses. They may also serve as a
place to direct visitors duped by phishing messages and as a launchpad
for security exploits.
Symantec has identified 58 typo domains related to Hillary Clinton's
official Web site, 52 related to Barak Obama's official Web site, 34
related to John Edwards' official Web site, 20 related to John McCain's
official Web site, and 18 related to Mitt Romney's official Web site.
The research did not indicate why Democratic candidates have been more
heavily targeted by typo squatters than Republican candidates.
As to the possibility that legitimate politicians might try to gain an
advantage by enlisting cybercriminals, Friedrichs said, "We haven't seen
that yet and we certainly hope we don't see it."
According to the book, most of the typo sites appear to have been set up
to earn ad dollars using the candidates' names rather than to place a
particular person in office. It's also worth noting that some typo sites
are satirical in nature and are thus constitutionally protected free
speech rather than attempts to dupe or defraud voters.
Yet, Friedrichs cautions, extremists unaffiliated with a particular
campaign might try to attack a campaign's opponents online. "What we
have seen in the past is denial-of-service attacks against candidate Web
sites," he said. "For example, in 2006, we saw attacks against the Joe
Lieberman Web site, Joe2006.com, and that site was taken offline for
some time. ... As a result, the e-mail system for the campaign was
To date, there's no evidence to suggest that cybercriminals have altered
the outcome of an election. "We have not seen an attack that has had a
meaningful impact on the outcome of an election yet," explained
But the impact of cybercrime on the electoral process need not be that
severe to be troubling. "We do believe that tactics that we see in the
physical world like voter intimidation and deception are likely to
manifest themselves in the cyberworld as well," said Friedrichs.
One of the possible attacks that concerns Friedrichs is the diversion of
funds. "For example, if I'm a phisher, I can set up a phishing site or a
typo site and a victim coming to that site may believe he's contributing
a donation to one particular candidate, but on the back end we can
actually redirect that transaction to a completely different candidate.
So essentially, the victim would be donating to their candidate's
opponent. And that has the potential to really cause voters to lose
faith in the online donation system as a whole."
All 17 of the 2008 presidential candidates researched by Symantec (NSDQ:
SYMC) accept online donations, according to Friedrichs.
As to how such issues might be dealt with, Friedrichs doubts legislation
will help. Laws like the Can-Spam Act, he said, haven't had a meaningful
impact on the distribution of spam.
"There are already a number of countermeasures that campaigns can
leverage," said Friedrichs. "What we find is that many of [the
politicians], being relatively new to the Internet, really haven't
become aware of the best practices they should be taking. One of the
goals here is to raise awareness of those best practices."
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