CAMBRIDGE, Mass. ― Two months after the campaign managers for Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney helped launch an effort to assist campaigns in preventing future cyberattacks, four secretaries of state have signed on to work on their project.
Republicans Mac Warner of West Virginia and Tom Schedler of Louisiana, and Democrats Denise Merrill of Connecticut and Nellie Gorbea of Rhode Island, are now participating in the effort to create a non-partisan playbook for campaigns.
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The project is in part fueled by the presidential campaign experiences of Robby Mook and Matt Rhoades, both of whom managed campaigns that fell victim to hacking by foreign entities.
Mook and Rhoades have been in touch with a number of campaigns this year but won’t identify them because of the sensitivity of the issue.
“Not everyone wants to talk about it, because if you’re talking about it you’re not talking about your campaign, your candidate, and you’re also putting a target on your back, I totally get that,” Rhoades said. “A lot of the meetings that we have, discussions we have, are completely off the record for those reasons.”
Mook and Rhoades are so far refraining from offering a hard timeline for their initiatives.
“It’s less about ‘In 2018, elections will be completely secure,’” Mook said. “It’s more about, ‘we know that a lot of campaigns can be in a much better place so we’re doing everything we can to help get them there.’”
“A big worry and concern, especially, is down-ballot campaigns,” Rhoades said. “Usually they are a collection of young people who bring their laptops from back home, someone gets assigned to be the digital director and they’re told ‘You’re the IT director, too,’ so they try to create some secure system and we want to try to provide them with the best opportunity, the best practices, so they can make their campaign as secure as possible.”
One way to do that is to change the culture around information-sharing in campaigns, including borrowing a page from the retail industry’s best practices.
“A lot of companies, take the retail sector for example, they have set up systems to share information and warn each other when there’s trouble out there,” Mook said. “But outside of security, they’re really tough competitors and they don’t like each other and they’re trying to get ahead of each other. We want to bring that same culture into the political space, where when it comes to security, it’s one team, one fight.”
Rhoades concedes that getting rival campaigns to view themselves as ‘one team’ fighting ‘one fight’ won’t be easy, but, he says, “our goal isn’t to make the DNC and RNC love each other.”
While Mook’s campaign dealt with the blowback from the latest incidence of high-profile election hacking, Rhoades can also attest to the sting of digital infiltration after Chinese government-linked hackers attacked the Romney presidential campaign in the fall of 2011.
“We had to use vital, precious, primary campaign hard dollars, money that we wanted to use to win New Hampshire and Iowa to upgrade our security, our cybersecurity, so it had a direct impact,” Rhoades told POLITICO. “That was money that we could have used when we needed it when Newt Gingrich caught fire in Iowa.”
Mook and Rhoades sat down in a rare joint interview this week to tout the Defending Digital Democracy project at Harvard’s Belfer Center, where they are senior fellows.
On Monday, the pair participated in a panel discussion alongside Google Information Security Manager Heather Adkins and Debbie Plunkett, former director of the National Security Agency’s Information Assurance Directorate.
“No matter what campaign you are, whether it’s presidential or a state campaign, you are facing an opponent who has enormous resources and know-how” Mook said. “So anybody who’s going up against a nation-state is just outmatched. Period, It’s just true.”
“Even the Hillary Clinton campaign,” Rhoades said, with a laugh.
“Even the Hillary Clinton campaign,” Mook said.