It’s the eve of Election Day 2020, and political reporters have just received an incendiary email. Donald Trump’s campaign has sent out grainy cellphone footage of his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, at a private meeting with wealthy donors, ridiculing Americans who voted for the president in 2016 and plotting how to trick them into backing him instead.
Except Biden never made the remarks and Trump never shared them. A few overeager journalists post the video on Twitter before fully investigating its authenticity, causing the clip to spread on social media faster than the presidential campaigns and the press can expose it as a fraud. U.S. authorities will eventually attribute the deception to North Korean hackers, impersonating the Trump campaign’s domain name and deploying deepfake technology to keep their preferred nuclear-talks counterpart in office. But that won’t happen for weeks, well after Americans have chosen their next leader.
Such a hypothetical scenario isn’t implausible. In fact, it’s a type of threat that the email-security firm Agari flagged in a recent report. Three and a half years have passed since John Podesta, the chairman of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, fell for a phishing email—granting Russian hackers, and thereby the world, access to his Gmail account and coming to embody the devastating ways foreign governments can meddle in democratic politics. In light of that trauma, the current crop of presidential campaigns has made progress in fortifying their digital operations. But according to those who have worked with the campaigns on these efforts, they nevertheless remain vulnerable to attack and lack cybersecurity best practices.