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Whoops: the cyberattack on the DNC was a test

This is a test. This is only a test.

DNC Chairman Tom Perez must be happy the latest cyberattack didn’t pan out.
DNC Chairman Tom Perez must be happy the latest cyberattack didn’t pan out.
George Frey/Getty Images

On Tuesday, the Democratic National Committee announced it had been targeted by a “sophisticated” cyberattack. Now they’re saying it was a false alarm.

According to the DNC, the formal governing body of the Democratic Party, the “sophisticated attempt” by hackers to gain access to its voter database that they reported to the FBI Tuesday was actually a test. It turns out that the Michigan Democratic Party requested that a firm called DigiDems probe the DNC’s systems for vulnerabilities.

DigiDems apparently even sent emails to DNC officials trying to get them to use the fake page. But it seems not everyone back at national headquarters got the memo: On Tuesday, the DNC called the FBI to inform them of the hacking attempt.

To test the system, DigiDems created a fake website designed to look very similar to the real one that Democratic Party officials and campaigns use to log in to the party’s VoteBuilder voter database.

The idea was that officials would try to log in to this fake page using their real usernames and passwords, thereby revealing information that would-be hackers could use to log in to the real site and access the voter database. This tactic, called “spearphishing,” is one of the most common ploys malicious hackers use to try to gain access to sensitive or private information.

It’s reassuring that was just a test and not the real thing. Had hackers attacked for real, they could have gained access to sensitive information like addresses and phone numbers from thousands of potential voters, donors, and more.

But it looks like the DNC passed the test — this time.

“The party took the necessary precautions to ensure that sensitive data critical to candidates and state parties across the country was not compromised,” Bob Lord, the DNC’s top security officer, said in a statement on Thursday.

“There are constant attempts to hack the DNC and our Democratic infrastructure, and while we are extremely relieved that this wasn’t an attempted intrusion by a foreign adversary, this incident is further proof that we need to continue to be vigilant in light of potential attacks,” he added.

The DNC was a cyber target before — and it didn’t go well

There’s a good reason to check the DNC for holes in its cyberdefenses: The organization was hacked by Russians ahead of the 2016 presidential election. And that time around, the DNC didn’t handle things very well.

As the New York Times has reported in detail, the FBI discovered that a hacking group linked to the Russian government had gained access to at least one computer at the DNC.

But when the FBI contacted the DNC in September 2015 to let them know, the organization’s tech-support contractor didn’t do much with the information beyond performing “a cursory search of the DNC computer system logs to look for hints of such a cyberintrusion.”

In fact, it took a whopping nine months before DNC officials even held a formal meeting with the FBI about it.

That was too little, too late. Russian hackers ultimately had access to the DNC’s network for seven months before top DNC officials knew about the attack or hired anyone to combat it. During that time, the hackers stole countless emails and documents, later releasing them to the public to try to damage the Hillary Clinton campaign.

Clearly, the DNC has learned its lesson this time around and is taking steps to protect itself better this time. What’s less clear is whether the DNC can stay just as vigilant — and move just as quickly — if a real attack comes.