Oct. 10, 2007


Cybercriminals Could Steal Elections, Security Researcher Warns


Risks include the dissemination of misinformation, fraud, phishing, malicious code, and the invasion of privacy, according to Symantec analysts.


By Thomas Claburn, InformationWeek


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, the book details various forms of cybercrime. It is scheduled for publication in February.


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. elections.


"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,, and that site was taken offline for some time. ... As a result, the e-mail system for the campaign was unavailable."


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 Friedrichs.


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 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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