Facebook Sponsors Kennedy School Project to Protect Elections from Hackers

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Students leave the Institute of Politics after an event in December 2016.
Facebook is funding a new initiative at the Kennedy School that aims to develop better defenses against cyber attacks targeting the United States’s elections and political infrastructure.

The bipartisan “Defending Digital Democracy” project is led by Robby Mook and Matt Rhoades, campaign managers for former presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney, respectively, and overseen by Eric Rosenbach, the co-director of the Kennedy School’s Belfer Center.

Facebook, founded in a Harvard dorm room, is providing the seed funding for the project, the tech giant’s Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos announced in late July.

While serving in the Department of Defense during the Obama administration, Rosenbach worked on cybersecurity issues and said “hacking of the elections and campaigns” was one of the problems he found most troubling.

“Our biggest goal is to have both parties work together to do something that will help the country and secure the democracy so that bad guys down the road don’t get the idea that they can affect the outcome of our democratic processes,” Rosenbach said of the new project.

The project will focus on information sharing and the creation of “playbooks” with cybersecurity best practices for campaign organizations and election administrators.

Rosenbach said he believes that Mook and Rhoades make “a great combination” with the potential to bring their respective networks together.

“Both of them were willing to reach across a partisan aisle and work together on this, which is something that really is unusual nowadays in D.C.,” Rosenbach said.

In a statement, Mook emphasized the increasingly pervasive nature of foreign cyber attacks in elections, including on the Clinton campaign he managed in 2016, and the consequent need to “help both parties and civic institutions that are critical to elections better secure themselves.”

“Many foreign countries, and even terrorist organizations, exploit digital technology to advance their agendas and influence public narratives abroad,” Mook added.

For Rhoades, cyber attacks present “vulnerabilities” that threaten the American democratic system and “affect people of all political stripes.” This project, he wrote, is as an opportunity to bring together different parties and ideologies, as well as experts in related domains.

Stamos and Heather Adkins, Google’s Director of Information Security and Privacy, will sit on the project’s senior advisory group, along with national security leaders. This project is co-sponsored by the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics and the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy.

“We’ll have a lot of different people who have deep and unique experiences in different worlds and hopefully we’ll come up with some creative solutions to a very difficult problem,” Rosenbach said.

—Staff writer Sarah Wu can be reached at sarah.wu@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @sarah_wu_.

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