Cybercrime and Politics
by Zulfikar Ramzan - Monday, 4 August 2008.
As citizens of the United States prepare to cast their votes in the upcoming presidential election, the time is right to consider what implications, if any, Internet-borne threats may have on this process. With political candidates increasingly relying on the web to communicate their positions, assemble supporters and respond to critics – Internet-based risks are a serious concern as they can be used to disseminate misinformation, defraud candidates and the public and invade privacy.

Protecting against these risks requires a careful examination of the attack vectors most likely to have an immediate and material effect on an election, which in turn impact votes, candidates or campaign officials. Once individuals and organizations have a better understanding of these risks, they can put in place many of the same tools and processes that have proven effective in providing Internet protection for both consumers and enterprises.

Barbarians at the Gateway

As malware has evolved into crimeware, Internet threats are no longer noisy devices designed to get attention. Rather, today’s malicious code has moved out of basements and dorm rooms and into the hands of organized crime, aggressive governments and organizations intent on using this ubiquitous high-tech tool for their own criminal purposes.

Businesses and consumers are responding by adopting a more proactive approach to Internet security. Both at home and at work, many Internet users are implementing technologies and practices to mitigate their risk as they work and play online. After all, with their identities, financial well-being and reputations on the line, consumers and businesses have little choice but to tighten their defenses.

However, an equally insidious yet less publicized threat remains: the potential impact of this malicious activity on the election process. Many of the same risks that users have become accustomed to as they leverage the Internet in their daily lives can also manifest themselves when the Internet is expanded to the election process.

Beyond the concerns about voter fraud and the challenges of electronic voting, many of today’s threats from Internet-borne crimeware also have the potential to influence the election process leading up to voting day. From domain name abuse to campaign-targeted phishing, traditional malicious code and security risks, denial-of-service attacks, election hacking and voter information manipulation, the potential impact of these risks deserves consideration.

What’s in a Domain?

In today’s online environment, a number of risks are posed by individuals attempting to abuse the domain name system of the Internet. These include typo squatters, domain speculators and bulk domain name parkers.

Typo squatting aims to benefit from mistakes users might make as they enter a URL directly into the address bar of their web browser. It used to be that a typo resulted in an error message indicating that the specified site could not be found. Now, however, a user is likely to be directed to a different website unrelated to the intended one.

Unfortunately, organizations rarely have registered all potential variations of their domain name in an effort to protect themselves. Typo squatters anticipate which misplaced keystrokes will be most common for a given entity—in the case of election-focused activities, these would be websites related to the leading candidates—and register the resulting domain names so that traffic intended for the correct site goes instead to the typo squatter’s own web properties. The relative scarcity of simple, recognizable “core” domain names has resulted in the development of an after-market for those domain names and has led to the creation of a community of speculators who profit from the resale of domain names.

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