Was this the year political data finally bit back? We began 2016 talking about a data breach that had just echoed as far as the Democratic debate stage. We’re ending it thinking that the Russians might have hacked the presidential election. In between? Wikileaks, fake news, violated voting machines — the dark side of a political culture infiltrated by data and information at all levels.
What's a campaign to do when the machines turn on their masters?
First, the roll of digital horrors. Remember January, that innocent time before we thought our democracy could be compromised by a foreign power acting online? Back then, we worried about the access a couple of Bernie Sanders staffers might have gained to Clinton campaign voter data for a few hours, and the DNC's response to the offense. The resulting Sanders lawsuit didn't go away until April, dragging out a confrontation that surely contributed to the bad blood that lingered between the two camps for months.
Worse would come. The word "email" became something to dread, at least if you wanted Hillary Clinton to be president. The never-ending drip of stories about a private email server from her State Department days dominated the news, far more than any talk of trivialities like policy.
The best part: the "scandal" revolved around the idea that sensitive information might have passed through an email server that might have been vulnerable to attack. In other words, a hack attack that may never have happened.
While periodic barrages of Clinton emails landed courtesy of the FBI and State, Wikileaks strafed us with messages more recently stolen from within the DNC and the Clinton campaign itself. These actually compromised emails gave us a fascinating inside view of the political sausage-making, but they also set still-fuming Bernie supporters alight and fueled the perception that Clinton had something to hide. As a bonus, the hackers may have received their instructions from Moscow.
Also undermining confidence in our political system: fake news and voting machine break-ins. While the latter didn't change any election results that we know of, the fake news might have. What's too good to be true? That story your uncle just shared with 500 people on Facebook.
And whether it came from Macedonia or a couch in Long Beach, he may have seen it courtesy of a boost from a Kremlin-controlled botnet. The deep irony of a year in which data drove the political discourse? We're ending it talking about what it means for something to be “true.”
Against fake news, campaigns can't do much — though perhaps new tools will help. But most campaigns can take plenty more care to guard their data than they do today. Even if your staff is already creating passwords that other people can't figure out in five seconds (i.e., "password"), are you conscious of what they're sending over open wifi networks?
Meanwhile, have you checked every machine used by the campaign for malware, keystroke-catchers and stored passwords? Are your firewalls turned on? Are you prepared for the angry intern who copied his emails, memorized your website login and flipped you off on his way out the door? Never forget the old rule: don't write down anything you don't want to see on the front page of the local newspaper.
Botnets, fake news and hacked data is how American politics ends in 2016. Who needs Skynet?
Colin Delany is founder and editor of the award-winning Epolitics.com, a twenty-year veteran of online politics and a perpetual skeptic. See something interesting? Send him a pitch at firstname.lastname@example.org