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How Cloudflare helps secure the inboxes of democracy


5 min read

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How Cloudflare helps secure the inboxes of democracy

We at Cloudflare believe that every candidate, no matter their political affiliation, should be able to operate their campaign without having to worry about the risk of cyberattacks. Malicious attackers such as nation-state threat actors, those seeking monetary reward, or those with too much time on their hands often disagree with our mission and aim to wreak havoc on the democratic process.

Protecting Email Inboxes Is Key In Stopping Attacks

In the past years, malicious actors have used email as their primary threat vector when trying to disrupt election campaigns. A quick search online shows how active attackers still are in trying to compromise election official’s email inboxes.1 Over 90% of damages done to any organization are caused by a phishing attack, making protecting email inboxes a key focus. A well crafted phishing email paired, or an errant click could give an attacker the opportunity to see sensitive information, disseminate false information to voters, or steal campaign donations.

For the United States 2022 midterm elections, Cloudflare protected the inboxes of over 100 campaigns, election officials and public organizations supporting elections. These campaigns ranged from new officials seeking spots in their local elections to incumbents in the national government. In the three months leading up to the recent elections, Cloudflare processed over 20 million emails and stopped around 150K phishing attacks from making their way into campaign officials' email inboxes.

Political Campaigns Are Attacked Consistently

Some campaigns were targeted more than others. For example, the campaign of a specific incumbent seeking re-election in the US Senate saw their staff members receiving over 35 malicious emails on average every day. And attackers were not just phishing for credentials but also trying to impersonate officials. We saw over 10 thousand emails sent in the three-month span that were using the names of those running for office without their permission.

Below are the metrics we saw from a senator’s campaign who attackers frequently tried to phish.

A candidate for the US House of Representatives saw their staff members receive an email with the subject “Staff Payroll Review” that asked them to access a document link.

Looking at the email, it would be tough to distinguish it from a valid internal email. It contained a valid email footer and branding that is consistent with the campaign. However, Area 1 models found several discrepancies within the metadata of the email and marked it as malicious.

Our models found that the domain sending these emails was suspicious based on how similar it was to the representative's actual campaign email. We refer to this as domain proximity. Also analyzing the link found in the email found that it was recently registered, further adding suspicion to the validity of the email.

Taking in all the data points, Area 1 made sure that the email never made it to any campaign staff’s mailbox and prevented the loss of data and money.

Another common attack campaigns see is the use of malicious attachments. These attachments can range from containing ransomware to data uploaders. The goal is to either slow down the politician’s campaign or exfiltrate sensitive information.

Attackers will use misdirection by either changing the extension of the attached file or by mentioning in the body of the email that the attachment is something more innocuous. We saw this in action for another campaign where a staffer was sent a targeted email asking them to download a purchase order.

Someone who processes hundreds of purchase orders a day does not have the time to thoroughly scrutinize every email and instead will focus on getting the money paid, so operations are not halted. Area 1’s models saved the staffer time and assessed this email to be malicious.

Our models first noticed that the attachment was a 7-Zip file called PO567.7z. Most purchase orders are sent via PDF so seeing it being sent as a 7z compressed file was concerning. Another data point the models assessed as being anomalous was the poor sentiment. The email not only has a glaring  grammatical mistake (i.e. “Dear Info,”) but also had poor message tone since it lacked common information found in legitimate purchase order emails.

All these signals, combined with the fact that this is the first time the recipient has ever received communications from the sender, triggered Area 1 to stop the email from making it into any mailbox.

These examples speak about the trust that campaigns place in Cloudflare. Our ability to scan millions of emails and prevent dangerous ones from making it into mailboxes while allowing safe ones to reach their intended recipients with no interruptions is why so many campaigns chose Cloudflare’s Area 1 product to secure their mailboxes and by extension secure our democratic institutions.

Cloudflare’s Area 1 Solution

All this is possible because of Area 1’s preemptive campaign discovery and machine learning algorithms which analyze various threat signals, from email attachments, to the sender's domain, to sentiment within the email itself in order to assess whether an email is malicious or not.

We also made Area 1 easily deployable, ensuring that campaigns are protected right away rather than having to spend time configuring hardware, agents, or appliances. Cloudflare also knows that election campaigns struggle to apply the appropriate email hygiene and authentication controls, stipulated by industry standards (such as SPF / DKIM / DMARC).

These can be complex and take time to implement. The rapid cycle of new campaigns makes it harder to set up the right email authentication controls that conform with industry best practices. Given that, it is all the more vital to ensure there are strong inbound technical controls against phishing and email-based attacks; letting campaigns focus on what's most important - spreading their message to their constituents in the most effective & secure manner possible.
We know that those who seek to become political leaders have a target on their backs from attackers looking to disrupt the democratic process.

At Cloudflare, we believe in creating a better Internet and that means ensuring that inboxes remain secure. If you would like to learn more about how Area 1 works and other ways we protect email inboxes, please check out the Area 1 product page here.


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