WASHINGTON — The FBI has opened an investigation into cyberattacks that targeted a Democratic candidate in a highly competitive congressional primary in southern California.
As Rolling Stone first reported in September, Democrat Bryan Caforio was the victim of what cybersecurity experts believe were distributed denial of service, or DDoS, attacks. The hacks crashed his campaign website on four separate occasions over a five-week span, including several hours before the biggest debate of the primary race and a week before the election itself, according to emails and other forensic data reviewed by Rolling Stone. They were the first reported instances of DDoS attacks on a congressional candidate in 2018.
Caforio was running in the 25th congressional district represented by Republican Rep. Steve Knight, a vulnerable incumbent and a top target of the Democratic Party. Caforio ultimately finished third in the June primary, failing to move on to the general election by several thousand votes.
“I’m glad the FBI has now launched an investigation into the hack,” Caforio tells Rolling Stone in a statement. “These attacks put our democracy at risk, and they’ll keep happening until we take them seriously and start to punish those responsible.”
It was unclear from the campaign’s data who launched the attacks. But in early October, a few weeks after Rolling Stone’s report, Caforio says an FBI special agent based in southern California contacted one of his former campaign staffers about the DDoS attacks. The FBI has since spoken with several people who worked on the campaign, requested forensic data in connection with the attacks and tasked several specialists with investigating what happened, according to a source close to the campaign.
According to the source, the FBI has expressed interest in several details of the DDoS attacks. The bureau asked about data showing that servers run by Amazon Web Services, the tech arm of the online retail giant, appear to have been used to carry out the attacks. The FBI employees also seemed to focus on the last of the four attacks on Caforio’s website, the one that came a week before the primary election.
An FBI spokeswoman declined to comment for this story.
A DDoS attack occurs when a flood of online traffic coming from multiple sources intentionally overwhelms a website and cripples it. The cybersecurity company Cloudflare compares DDoS to “a traffic jam clogging up a highway, preventing regular traffic from arriving at its desired destination.” Such attacks are becoming more common in American elections and civic life, according to experts who monitor and study cyberattacks. “DDoS attacks are being used to silence political speech and voters’ access to the information they need,” George Conard, a product manager at Jigsaw, a Google spin-off organization, wrote in May. “Political parties, campaigns and organizations are a growing target.”
Matthew Prince, the CEO of Cloudflare, told Rolling Stone last month that his company had noticed an increase in such attacks after 2016 and the successful Russian operations on U.S. soil.
“Our thesis is that, prior to 2016, U.S.-style democracy was seen as the shining city on the hill. The same things you could do to undermine a developing democracy wouldn’t work here,” Prince says. “But after 2016, the bloom’s off the rose.”
The FBI has since created a foreign influence task force to combat future efforts to interfere and disrupt U.S. elections.
Southern California, in particular, has seen multiple cyberattacks on Democratic congressional candidates during the 2018 midterms. Rolling Stone reported that Hans Keirstead, a Democratic candidate who had challenged Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), widely seen as the most pro-Russia and pro-Putin member of Congress, had been the victim of multiple hacking efforts, including a successful spear-phishing attempt on his private email account that resembled the 2016 hack of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman. Hackers also reportedly broke into the campaign computer of Dave Min, another Democratic challenger in a different southern California district, prompting the FBI to open an investigation.
On Friday, the nation’s four top law enforcement and national security agencies — the FBI, Justice Department, Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence — released a joint statement saying there were “ongoing campaigns by Russia, China and other foreign actors, including Iran” that include interference in the 2018 and 2020 elections. Cybersecurity experts and political consultants say there are many reports of hacking attempts on 2018 campaigns that have not been publicized. But the proximity of the attacks is significant because Democrats have a greater chance of taking back the House of Representatives if they can flip multiple seats in Southern California.