Presidential campaign cyberattacks appear here to stay

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Earlier this week, it was announced that hackers exploited a cross-site scripting (XSS) vulnerability that misdirected visitors to the website of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's website to the site of his rival, Hillary Clinton. British internet research firm Netcraft, which originally reported the Obama website vulnerability, now reports that the Clinton site has also been found to have similar vulnerabilities.

In what has been an already contentious political season, do the two recent attacks point to a trend?

Jacob West, manager of Fortify Software's Security Research Group, thinks so. First of all, it is important to note that the majority of websites are vulnerable to XSS attacks, so perhaps it was only a matter of time before the candidates' sites were attacked, he said.

“This is the first presidential election where the internet plays a major role, both as a communication tool and as a fund-raising tool,” West told SCMagazineUS.com on Thursday.

Also, according to Opensecrets.org, a website that reports on monies raised and spent in political campaigns, $17 million has already been spent on web media in the 2008 primaries. By exploiting vulnerabilities in the candidates' websites, West said, there is not only the loss of access to a potential constituency, but also a potential financial loss.

The recent exploit on the Obama and Clinton sites were very crude, but it could be a hint of things to come, Bill Pennington, vice president of services at WhiteHat Security, told SCMagazineUS.com.

“They could rewrite the HTML code to have money go to Hillary when it was meant to go to Obama,” he said.

Zulfikar Ramzan of Symantec Security Response agreed. Although he said this type of XSS assault is common and this particular exploit made news because of the site's high profile, Ramzan said it would be easy for a hacker to use the site in a more malicious way.

“It is easier to detect technical-based threats and protect users,” he told SCMagazineUS.com. “The social angle is more difficult, trying to figure out when someone is being tricked.”

It isn't just the website visitor's personal information that can be stolen, but also the candidate's reputation, Ramzan said. If the hackers can exploit XSS vulnerabilities, they can also create smear campaigns by changing text or sending visitors to sites that oppose the candidate.

West said it is important for political candidates to start thinking more like businesses and build security into the software.

“In this election, there is an increased connection between politics and technology,” West said. “More technical people are playing a part, both good guys and bad guys.”
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