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Ex-NSA Hacker Reviewed by FEC over Software Contribution Offer

Following the controversy surrounding the hacking and the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, an ex-NSA hacker wants to give political campaigns a free tool to block hackers from getting access to their files. 

Oren Falkowitz, who is also the founder of Area 1, wants to offer the company's software to help protect political campaigns from spear phishing, which Russian military hackers used to gain illegal access to the email accounts of the Democratic National Committee. They also used this technique to access Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman emails in 2016. Speaking to NBC News, Falkowitz comments that campaigns can't afford to spend contribution money on expensive cybersecurity products: "This is exactly the thing we are supposed to be trying to solve against." 

However the Federal Electoral Commission (FEC) issued a draft notice on Monday, June 4, 2019, that recommended the commission vote against Area 1 Security's request to offer cybersecurity software for free to the 2020 presidential campaigns. The reasoning is that a company providing a free product to a political campaign can count as corporate campaign contributions.

Yet Area 1 cites as precedent Microsoft Corp. last year offering "a package of enhanced online account security services to its election-sensitive customers at no additional cost." An exception was made to Microsoft because it would be acting on a "nonpartisan basis."

"Microsoft plans to offer this service for a variety of commercial reasons beyond mere promotion or goodwill, most notably to protect its brand reputation, which would be at risk of severe and long-term damage if the accounts of its election sensitive customers were hacked," the commission ruled in October 2018. On this occasion, though, the FEC found that Area 1 did not meet the same criteria. 

The FBI says political campaigns remain "a top target for foreign influence campaigns," including through hacking. "We recognize that our adversaries are going to keep adapting and upping their game," said FBI director Christopher Wray. "So we are very much viewing 2018 as just kind of a dress rehearsal for the big show in 2020."

The FEC is slated to officially decide on Area 1's request during a public meeting Thursday.

After two years of investigating, Robert S. Mueller III released his investigation, Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election, which showed that Russian hackers interfered in the 2016 presidential election using social media activity, which related back to the Cambridge Analytica exposé in March 2018 and "a Russian intelligence service conducted computer-intrusion operations against entities, employees, and volunteers working on the Clinton Campaign and then released stolen documents."

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