Obama campaign hopes for better Web security

Two months after their Web site was hacked, the organizers of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign are looking for a network security expert to help lock down their Web site.

“Obama for America is looking for a network security expert who wants to play a key role in a historic political campaign,” reads the ad, posted to the Barackobama.com Web site.

The requirements are pretty much what you’d read in any e-commerce security help-wanted ad: VPN (virtual private network) and Unix or Linux experience, along with a “deep understanding” of LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL and Perl) development. And of course, the successful candidate must be willing to “respond off-hours to high urgency security situations.”

Successful candidates will join Obama’s Boston team and should expect to find a new job come November.

Security experts said this is the first time they can remember seeing a Web security job advertised for a political campaign. In fact, Internet security has not always been a priority on political Web sites, according to Paul Ferguson, a network architect with computer security company Trend Micro. “Normally, I don’t think they’ve paid much attention to it,” he said.

Obama’s Web site, built by Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes, has been the model of Web 2.0 campaigning, using social-networking techniques to raise funds and build a broad base of active, Internet-savvy supporters.

But security experts have long warned that powerful Web site features also open new avenues for attack.

With the Internet driving the majority of the campaign’s contributions, Web security is probably more important to Obama than it has been to any other presidential candidate. A Web outage could cost his campaign millions of dollars, and a widely publicized privacy breach could put the brakes on his most important source of cash.

“The Obama campaign has got a bigger bull’s-eye on them now that they’ve stitched up the nomination,” Ferguson said. “It’s worth their time to be more security conscious.”

In April, a programming error allowed a Hillary Clinton supporter to redirect part of Obama’s Web site to Clinton’s, but today’s Web attack techniques could lead to much more serious consequences.

“Attacks like SQL injection would be far more of a concern,” said Oliver Friedrichs, a director with Symantec Security Response who has written about computer security and the 2008 presidential election. “If I was able to get access to the database that houses their donor information, that would be very concerning.”

So-called SQL injection attacks take advantage of programming errors and allow attackers to get unauthorized access to parts of a Web site. They can be used to install malicious software or gain access to sensitive information.

Obama’s site isn’t the only one to suffer from Web security bugs. A similar flaw popped up in Mitt Romney’s site in January, and Hillary Clinton’s name was used in a spam campaign that delivered messages laced with malicious Trojan Horse software programs, Friedrichs said.

Internet security is always a top priority for political campaigns, even if security jobs are not always advertised, said Henry Poole, founder of the Internet campaign consultancy CivicActions. “We’ve always had somebody looking at the security issues,” he said. “Maybe it’s just an issue of the Obama campaign being more transparent.”

While Web defacements and denial of service attacks may be the most common security problems, a Web privacy breach could quickly become a major campaign issue, Poole said. “For a big office, things like the reputation of the candidate are really important,” he said.

Obama’s campaign staff did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

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