Over the past year, agents from the FBI’s Cyber-Crime Units in Washington D.C. and Southern California have been investigating a series of cyber-attacks launched against one of the Democratic candidates seeking to unseat Republican Congressmember Dana Rohrabacher, according to an expose published Wednesday by Rolling Stone Magazine.
The target of these attacks, Dr. Hans Keirstead, a stem-cell scientist and the CEO of a biomedical research company, finished third in California’s top-two “jungle” primary on June 5th, falling 125 votes short of advancing to the general election in one of the narrowest margins of any congressional primary this year. He has since endorsed Harley Rouda, the Democrat who finished in second place and will face the longtime anti-LGBT Rohrabacher in the November election.
Rohrabacher, a 15-year incumbent representing California’s 48th congressional district in Orange County, has often been chided as “Putin’s favorite congressman” by his critics. As a vehement opponent of LGBT equality, he recently came under fire for remarks made May 16 when he told a delegation of the Orange County Association of Realtors at a meeting in Washington that “homeowners should have the right to refuse to sell their property to LGBT individuals.”
The hacking attempts and the FBI’s involvement are described in dozens of emails and forensic records obtained by Rolling Stone.
Kyle Quinn-Quesada, who was Keirstead’s campaign manager, told Rolling Stone that the campaign is now going public about the attacks for the sake of voter awareness.
“It is clear from speaking with campaign professionals around the country that the sustained attacks the Keirstead for Congress campaign faced were not unique but have become the new normal for political campaigns in 2018,” Quinn-Quesada says. He added that the Keirstead campaign did not believe the cyberattacks had an effect on the primary election results.
Cybersecurity experts told the magazine that it’s nearly impossible to identify who was behind the hacks without the help of law enforcement or high-priced private Cybersecurity firms that collect their own threat data. These experts speculate that the hackers could have been one of many actors: a nation-state (such as Russia), organized crime, so-called e-crime or a hacktivist with a specific agenda. The FBI declined to comment.
In a phone conversation with a source at Google Wednesday evening, the Los Angeles Blade asked if these types of attacks had become enough of a persuasive element that would lead to encouraging more political campaigns to tighten up their Cybersecurity.
“I think that Rolling Stone is pointing out that there is a very real danger now in the process,” the Google source said. “It still appears as if not enough staffers and campaign workers realize just how pervasive and successful these attacks have become even after the 2016 elections.”
A cybersecurity specialist who works for Microsoft Corporation and asked to not be publicly identified, told the LA Blade Wednesday that the timing of the attacks is significant. He described anti-hacking efforts by Microsoft designed to impede attempts to attack candidates for elected offices in the 2018 election cycle. Politico magazine reported on those efforts last month: “Earlier this year, we did discover that a fake Microsoft domain had been established as the landing page for phishing attacks,” said Tom Burt, Microsoft’s vice president for security and trust, at the Aspen Security Forum. “And we saw metadata that suggested those phishing attacks were being directed at three candidates who are all standing for election in the midterm elections.”
In the case of Keirstead’s campaign, a Microsoft spokesperson declined to tell Rolling Stone if Keirstead was one of three people targeted by hackers, citing “customer privacy.”
The serious nature of these cyber-attacks was underscored last month when the Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said the warning lights for future cyber-attacks aimed at the U.S. were “blinking red.”
Reporting by the staff of the Los Angeles Blade, Rolling Stone, Politico, and NPR.