NEW YORK (Reuters) - Hillaryclinton.org bears the likely Democratic presidential candidate’s name, but she would not want supporters to go there: some cyber security experts said this week the site contains malicious software.
The site is registered, not to Clinton, but to an administrator in the Cayman Islands. Its existence underscores the challenge 2016 U.S. presidential hopefuls will face in trying to control their digital brands, more important than ever before as voters increasingly turn to the Internet to learn more about candidates.
An examination by Reuters of domains including the full names of eight Republican and four Democratic hopefuls, ending in .com, .org, .net and .info, showed that only a few of those sites appear to be under the control of the candidates.
The rest are seemingly owned by a hodgepodge of buyers - from self-declared fans of the candidates to anonymous registrants who have “parked” the domains - that is to say owned but unused - for undisclosed reasons.
“Welcome to the Wild Wild West of the Internet,” said Patrick Peterson, the chief executive of cyber safety company Agari.
Texas Senator Ted Cruz learned that the hard way last week when he became the first major Republican contender to announce his bid for the presidency. Tedcruz.com, whose owner is anonymous, immediately attracted increased attention but for the wrong reasons: its pro-Obama, pro-immigration reform message. The real Cruz has vowed to fight President Barack Obama’s immigration reforms.
Several experts, including from Trend Micro and TrustedSec, who reviewed the hillaryclinton.org site at the request of Reuters said it contained malware that could infect users’ computers or phish for personal information. Kevin Epstein, a vice president at cyber security company Proofpoint, said the site had “classic domain-squatting drive-by download malware.”
The owner of hillaryclinton.org did not respond to a request for comment.
A source familiar with Clinton’s office said she values using “innovative ways on digital platforms” to communicate should she run for the presidency. “But that doesn’t mean that this kind of thing isn’t going to happen from time to time, as we’ve seen with others in recent weeks.”
The success of various campaigns in protecting their digital brands has been wildly uneven.
Republican Scott Walker, for example, appears to have control of scottwalker.com and scottwalker.org. That puts the Wisconsin governor at the top of the heap among the candidates and sites examined by Reuters.
Data suggest that he picked up scottwalker.com in 2012 from a seller in Alabama, the same year he faced a recall election.
Matt Oczkowski, the digital director of Friends of Scott Walker, said the Walker campaign group bought the domain name “to make sure that we can control that content flow that comes out under our brand.”
In contrast, chrischristie.com belongs to a computer programmer in Milwaukee, not his more famous namesake, the Republican New Jersey governor. And chrischristie.net shows the photo of a Chris L. Christie, who identifies himself as a mortgage planning specialist.
One problem across parties and candidates is the near infinite number of domain names available once hyphens, dots, election years and other terms are added to site names.
Still, there are ways for candidates to help divert traffic away from sites they don’t own. Campaigns can use various tools, collectively called search engine optimization, to push real sites higher in search results.
The problem is that people who are interested in a candidate will often direct navigate, said Josh Bourne, the president of the Coalition Against Domain Name Abuse, a group that fights against so-called cybersquatting.
That means some people will simply type what they think is the likely address for a candidate site directly into their browser window. That makes them more likely to stumble onto a website not operated by a particular campaign.
The websites votehillary.com, votejeb.com and votewalker.com all redirect to the same website, which is owned by Boca Raton orthodontist Larry Kawa, a Republican who says he owns thousands of domain names across the political spectrum.
Kawa is reselling a number of political domains, available for prices from a few hundred to thousands of dollars.
“It started out really just as a hobby,” he said. “Political domains are my one kick.”
Reporting by Luciana Lopez and Jim Finkle, editing by Ross Colvin