As he campaigned for president in 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama witnessed both the sheer power, and to a lesser extent, the shortcomings of the internet.
Indeed, the eventual 44th president of the United States masterfully leveraged the web in a way never before done by a presidential candidate – to raise money, organize support and reach constituents. But he also witnessed the online medium's underbelly, when, for example, a hacker exploited a cross-site scripting vulnerability to send visitors from Obama's campaign site to the one belonging to challenger Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The cyber worries Obama's campaign faced in 2008, however, likely were just an opening salvo. Not only have attack tactics gotten more sophisticated since 2008, but there also has been a meteoric rise of politically motivated hacktivism, particularly by the Anonymous collective, which has made no qualms about its interest in going after individuals or organizations with which it disagrees.
And with the Iowa caucuses, the first major electoral event related to the 2012 presidential nomination, set for early next month, the digital firefight may soon get going, said Steve Livingston, a principal at Deloitte and lead of the company's power and utilities security practice.
“Campaign organizations don't have CISOs,” he said, calling them soft targets. “The incentive to show the American people what someone is really thinking, not just what their talking points are, I think there's too much return on investment there for a hacktivist [to pass up].”
Already, in a video posted to YouTube in early November, Anonymous asked viewers to “occupy” the presidential candidates' campaign offices in Des Moines, Iowa on Dec. 27, and then “peacefully shut down” the polls on Jan. 3.
“The primaries and caucuses put on by these parties are part of an elaborate scam that deceives the public into voting for candidates that serve the private interests of the mega corporations,” said a computer-generated voice in the video.
The two-minute clip does not explain how Anonymous plans to accomplish this action, whether it's on the ground or in cyberspace – perhaps by way of a DDoS attack? – but some have suggested the video is a hoax. Regardless, its mere existence underscores the possibility that the race to next November may be far unlike any other in presidential history.
Amount of money President Obama raised online in his 21-month campaign in 2008
– The Washington Post