Belmont Club

Political intelligence gathering

Computerworld, sourcing its story primarily from Newsweek, reports that the campaign computer systems of both John McCain and Barack Obama were broken into by a “foreign entity” looking to get information that would be useful in negotiations with the next US President. The speculation in the article was that either Russia or China was responsible.

According to the Newsweek story, a federal agent told Obama campaign officials that they had an IT security problem “way bigger than what you understand. You have been compromised, and a serious amount of files have been loaded off your system.”

Technical staffers working for Obama later speculated that the hackers might have been from China or Russia, the story says. It adds that a security firm retained by the campaign later plugged the security holes.

What information might the “foreign entity” have gotten? The amount of information handled by the campaign computers may have been enormous and very granular. Just how granular was illustrated by the Obama campaign’s Project Houdini, described by Newsweek in its story on the campaigns and computer security as a system for checking off people as they voted in near real-time on their systems.

The Obama campaign’s New Media experts created a computer program that would allow a “flusher”—the term for a volunteer who rounds up nonvoters on Election Day—to know exactly who had, and had not, voted in real time. They dubbed it Project Houdini, because of the way names disappear off the list instantly once people are identified as they wait in line at their local polling station.

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