Will Democrats and Donald Trump share all campaign cyberthreat intel in 2020?

The idea of Trump, who actively encouraged campaign hacking during the 2016 election, sharing cyber intelligence with Democrats may become reality.
(Gage Skidmore)

Imagine this: Donald Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign and, let’s say, Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign working together closely on cyber threat and incident intelligence sharing. Every sensitive piece of information and forensics on hacking attempts is passed between the two opposing organizations. Given what we know about the 2016 presidential campaign, the scenario seems like a long shot. However, it’s potentially closer to reality than most would think.

It’s one possible outcome of a newly launched project promoting an Information Sharing and Analysis Organization (ISAO) among U.S. political campaigns. The overall project, Defending Digital Democracy, launched in July at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. This month, 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook and 2008 Mitt Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades announced the ISAO as the DDD’s first priority.

In the wake of the most high-profile campaign hacking in American history, the idea for information sharing has received a lot of support. The specifics  including the possibility of Trump, who actively encouraged campaign hacking during the 2016 election, working with political opponents  leaves some observers with more questions than answers, though.

Industrywide threat and intelligence information sharing has gained widespread acclaim in the last two decades. The campaign ISAO is modeled after Information Sharing and Analysis Centers in the private sector, like the Financial Services Information Sharing and Analysis Center (FS-ISAC), which has 7,000 member organizations — many of whom are long-time competitors — that share real-time intelligence across four continents. The FS-ISAC is considered one of the chief reasons the financial industry is at the forefront of cybersecurity. The same model can be found in industries including health care, nuclear power and automobiles.


Will the model transfer to the world of U.S. political organizations during an especially turbulent and unprecedented moment in American politics?

The benefits and behaviors that make information sharing work in cutthroat, for-profit sectors have been closely examined, and the benefits are relatively clear. The kind of intelligence shared between banks, energy companies and automotive manufacturers tends to be a boon to their entire industries. Financial and energy companies, for instance, tend to see the other firms as part of the same interconnected and interdependent systems.

“If embarrassing emails from Wells Fargo get published on WikiLeaks about stuff the Department of Justice already knows about and is wacking on them for fraudulent customer schemes, does that really benefit Bank of America?” John Sebes, the chief technology officer at the Open Source Election Technology Institute, explained. “Not really. They might be kind of happy and maybe they get a little better business but there is still no motivation to competitively withhold threat information because it’s symmetric: If you withhold information from me, I’ll withhold from you and the next hack I withhold might be worse than the one of yours that I could have prevented. There is no inherent benefit.”

It’s not at all clear that the same dynamic is at play for political organizations.

“How about if embarrassing emails from DCCC show up on WikiLeaks?” Sebes asked. “Wow, well the Republicans might actually derive serious benefit from that. That’s where the analogy breaks down.”


More to the point, perhaps, is that Bank of America hasn’t very recently publicly encouraged anyone to hack Wells Fargo. That might well put a stop to all cooperation.

Mook and Rhoades are working with Eric Rosenbach, formerly a Defense Department chief of staff and now the co-director of the Belfer Center. None replied to requests for comment.

Mook announced the new venture in a CNN op-ed in which he preemptively warned against cynicism by pointing to to bipartisan efforts between Obama and Romney personnel that successfully reduced wait times during the 2012 general election.

It’s a laudable accomplishment but a questionable comparison. Those two camps agreed on some level that wait times for voters were a problem that needed attention. Trump, who is already ramping up his 2020 campaign, not only encouraged hacking during the 2016 election, but also now disputes who was behind the multitude of cyber-incidents that plagued the campaign.

Sebes said the key to the DDD ISAO’s possible success is to focus on the 2018 congressional elections.


“The only way that it does work is if Mook and Rhoades work fast,” Sebes said. “The national parties, their congressional and senate committees, some of the state parties are organizations that have active operations in 2018. If they can establish the organization and demonstrate that it provides value without detriment to participants, there is a good chance it will continue to have value in the 2020 election.”

Without that proving ground, 2020 is a much more challenging mountain to climb.

“I couldn’t imagine what it would be like two years from now when Democratic campaigns are participating in this and then the Trump campaign comes along and says ‘Oh yeah, I want to hear all about your hacks,'” Sebes said. “That’s going to be weird. That’s why they have to move fast or the whole thing can be torpedoed.”

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