Cybersecurity Lessons From the 2016 Presidential Election

The 2016 presidential election put the spotlight on cybersecurity in a way that no one could have imagined ahead of time. When we looked at cybersecurity as an election issue earlier this year, the focus was on how cybersecurity policy in general might emerge as a campaign issue in relation to issues such as privacy and surveillance.

Instead, cybersecurity became a leading driver of the presidential campaign — including concerns about security posture of the election itself. In the process, the election offered many cybersecurity lessons, and a year of teachable moments about protecting data and networks.

Cybersecurity Lessons From the Campaign Trail

Most recent public and business awareness about data security has revolved around personally identifiable information (PII), especially financial information such as credit card data. Consumers fear identity theft and companies fear theft of customers’ account data.

Thanks to the presidential election, we have all learned — again — that email is insecure. It can easily be compromised and released online with potentially dramatic consequences. It is unlikely that analysts will ever be able to conclude whether controversies over email had a major impact on the election, but the very word became an effective campaign slogan.

More Than Meets the Eye

At the basis of this surprising turn are issues related to how email is secured and the consequences of email being compromised, whether it contains classified materials or merely unguarded and potentially embarrassing remarks. These considerations figured into the high-profile Sony breach of 2014, but the election brought them back into the public spotlight. The lesson here is applicable beyond just email: All kinds of unstructured data, such as social media content, is potentially sensitive and potentially vulnerable to compromise.

Similarly, the cybersecurity lessons of the 2016 election extend to the election process itself. Worries about compromised voting machines are not entirely new, but they were front and center this year. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) also warned that state election systems were being probed and encouraged officials to share information regarding election cybersecurity.

Cybersecurity in the National Spotlight

The 2016 election ultimately went smoothly, with unexpected results but no hint of cybercrime. U.S. elections are, in fact, difficult to breach. This is partly because they are decentralized, carried out by thousands of local authorities, and partly because voting machines are simple devices and not connected to the internet, even where votes are tabulated electronically.

Nevertheless, election security has now emerged as a key component of national security policy. Although there was little formal discussion about cybersecurity as a policy issue, the 2016 election offered countless cybersecurity lessons and informed the public about the need to protect all kinds of information, not just financial or health data.

Rick Robinson is a writer and blogger, with a current 'day job' focus on the tech industry and a particular interest in...