Public officials are under physical and digital siege

I am deeply troubled by recent events in which attackers appear to target U.S. diplomats with the purpose of causing them debilitating health symptoms. These symptoms include dizziness, headache, fatigue, nausea, anxiety, cognitive difficulties and memory loss. This illness has been dubbed “Havana Syndrome” because it was first experienced by U.S. State Department personnel stationed in Cuba beginning in late 2016.

We are observing a similar pattern of brazen and sophisticated attacks on our public officials in the digital world. One type of attack we are increasingly seeing involves attackers using “botnets,” large, coordinated groups of compromised computing devices that attackers direct to attack specific targets, often websites. Attackers are now using sophisticated botnets to scrape government websites for the personal information of U.S. officials. The attackers then use the scraped data to blackmail or phish public officials. Artificial intelligence (AI)-controlled bots can hit vast numbers of sites at lightening speeds and enable attackers to target specific individuals who are likely to have access to sensitive government information. If officials are successfully phished, attackers can steal credentials and potentially access sensitive government information and platforms. 

We are also seeing a major uptick in the impersonation or takeover of public officials’ social media accounts by bad actors. While an account takeover would be a frustrating nuisance to most of us, the takeover of a high-level public official’s social media account could have real world security or economic impacts.

We saw a hint of how extensive this threat could be last year, when the Twitter accounts of many public figures, including former President Barack Obama and President Joe Biden were compromised. While attackers only leveraged their position to promote a Bitcoin scam, one could easily see how this could be used for more nefarious and harmful purposes. For example, an account takeover or a convincing impersonation of a Federal Reserve official could potentially result in disinformation that impacts global stock markets. 

Solutions that can help mitigate these digital threats…