Experts Discuss Future of Cyber Threats in Politics

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Leading political, national security, and technology experts gather at the IOP Monday night to discuss defending democracy from cyber attacks

Security and communications experts joined a panel discussion on digital threats to democracy and cybersecurity at the Institute of Politics’ JFK Jr. Forum Monday night.

On the panel were Robby E. Mook and Matt Rhoades, who managed Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns, respectively, and now work together on "Defending Digital Democracy," a project at the Kennedy School’s Belfer Center that looks to prevent foreign influence on future elections.

The pair kicked off the event by lamenting cyber attacks on their respective campaigns. Mook spoke about Russian government’s influence on the Clinton campaign, and Rhoades said that during Romney’s campaign, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reported that Chinese hackers had compromised the effort.

“What I worry the most, from a campaign standpoint... [is] having some hacker decide that they’re going to change the course of history by hacking into some rising star’s email and misconstruing something they wrote or targeting someone close to them, and having that candidate just stop on the launching pad,” Rhoades he said.

Clint Watts, a former FBI special agent and expert on cyber warfare, said that countries around the world—not just the United States—are vulnerable to breaches of cyber security. He added that Russian digital influence on the 2016 election may already be irreversible.

“They now have influence over a nationalist agenda that stretches through Russia, through Germany, through France, through the United States,” he said.

Rhoades said he thought the possibility of a truly hacked election—in which individual ballots are tampered with—is even more worrying than cyber attacks. He said he fears that not even hard evidence of hacking could legitimize an election that had been interfered in to such a degree.

“In the polarized world that we live in, no one would believe the results [of a hacked election], and it would create absolute chaos,” Rhoades said. “That’s what these hackers and outside foreign entities are trying to do the most, they’re trying to create chaos.”

—Staff writer Lucas Ward can be reached at lucas.ward@thecrimson.com. Follow him on twitter at @LucaspfWard.

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