Hillary Clinton doesn’t usually get much love from the hacker elite. This is a presidential candidate, after all, whose idea of securing classified emails was to keep them on a server in her basement, and when asked if she’d “wiped” that computer, responded “with a cloth or something?” But in an election year when her opponent is Donald Trump—and a group of very active Russian cyberspies whom Trump has publicly encouraged—Clinton has scored a surprising first: a hacker fundraiser.
On Wednesday night, at the Black Hat security conference in Las Vegas, Clinton backers held a political event that was unprecedented for one of the biggest hacker gatherings in the world, inviting attendees to an evening of drinks at Vegas’ Mandalay Bay hotel and casino with a minimum donation of $100 to the Clinton campaign. Though Clinton herself didn’t attend, several dozen people packed into the small Mexican restaurant where the fundraiser was held anyway, many giving the maximum legal donation of $2,700, according to the fundraiser’s organizer, former Obama administration official Jake Braun. And from Braun’s opening remarks, he used the Russian breach of the Democratic National Committee revealed last month and Trump’s recent invitation for those Russian hackers to leak Hillary Clinton’s emails as a rallying cry for Clinton, and a point against a candidate with a dangerous ignorance of cybersecurity issues.
“The Russians have hacked the elections in Georgia and Kygyrzstan and the Ukraine. Who’s to say they’re not going to do it here? I mean, my god, they already have,” Braun, a political consultant, Obama campaign staffer, and former White House liaison to the Department of Homeland Security, told the small crowd. “We all know this. We need to make sure the world knows this, and that Donald Trump and his affiliates know it’s not OK to tell the Russians they can come and hack our democracy.”
Among the attendees in the political event’s audience were Facebook chief security officer Alex Stamos and Chris Wysopal, the founder of security firm Veracode and a member of the legendary hacker collective the L0pht. Later, Jeff “The Dark Tangent” Moss, founder of both the Black Hat conference and the much larger hacker conference Defcon, made his own remarks in support of Clinton at the start of the two hour event.
“I swore an oath to uphold the Constitution, and what’s happening is really fucking scary,” Moss told the small crowd, referring to a position he’s held since 2009 on the advisory council of the Department of Homeland Security. Moss acknowledged that holding a political event at Black Hat had generated controversy among the gathering’s typically nonpartisan crowd. He said he’d received a flood of emails, about one in four of which attacked him for politicizing the conference—despite Black Hat’s official insistence that the private fundraiser was held independently from the conference itself. “One friend asked me, ‘If Trump held an event, would you speak at that?’ If the Republicans had a cybersecurity policy, I’d seriously consider it,” Moss added, describing himself as an independent. “But they don’t have a policy. They don’t have a platform. And they don’t have anything organized.”
It wasn’t only former democratic officials who spoke up at the event; so did Jason Healey, a former cybersecurity advisor to George W. Bush’s White House. “I’m a technocrat. I care about seeing the right things get done,” Healey said. “But in this election, you can’t sit back and say anymore that whoever the president’s going to be, I’ll serve them. It’s time to get involved in the campaign.”
In any other election, it’s difficult to imagine even a small group of Black Hat’s attendees coming together to so vehemently support any political candidate or party. And Clinton’s campaign statements haven’t always ingratiated her to the hacker world: She’s denied that NSA leaker Edward Snowden was a whistleblower and said she believes he should return to the US to face legal charges. And she’s called for a “Manhattan Project” to create an encryption technique that would allow law enforcement access to Americans’ communications, placing herself in opposition to most encryption experts who see any such crypto backdoor as a critical flaw in data protections.
But Trump has made a series of statements that have been far more frightening and appalling for many in the cybersecurity and national security communities. Last month he repeated to the New York Times his threat not to help protect members of the NATO treaty from invasion from foreign powers like Russia. MSNBC reports he’s repeatedly asked advisors why the U.S. shouldn’t use its nuclear arsenal.
After Russian hackers were revealed to have breached the Democratic National Committee last month, Trump’s glib request to the hackers to leak Clinton’s deleted emails from her time as Secretary of State earned him another level of disdain from cybersecurity experts. And Braun, the organizer of Clinton’s Black Hat fundraiser, says he saw an opportunity to refocus his efforts to assemble support from the cybersecurity community around that remark. “Donald Trump and Russia are my best fundraising tools ever,” Braun told WIRED.