VC Ron Gula Explains Why He’s Funding Security Tools for Election Campaigns

Ron Gula, president and co-founder of Gula Tech Adventures

Editor’s note: This post is the latest in Security Outliers, a series of interviews with people who are tackling big security problems while questioning the status quo. Today’s Q&A is with Ron Gula, president and co-founder of Gula Tech Adventures and backer of the recently launched nonprofit Defending Digital Campaigns.

With the 2020 elections just a year away, concerns about cyber attacks targeting campaigns and candidates are mounting, and justifiably so given the influence the leaked DNC emails may have had on the last presidential election. Meanwhile, U.S. officials said recently that Russia, China and Iran are working to undermine the election. 

Help is on the way thanks to the nonprofit Defending Digital Campaigns (DDC). Earlier this year, the Federal Election Commission gave DDC the go-ahead to provide presidential and congressional campaigns with cybersecurity services at reduced cost or even for free. Companies have been historically barred from offering free services to campaigns because of ethical concerns, but the Commission made an exception in this case because the risks are great and the stakes are so high. 

Defending Digital Campaigns debuted its services last week, including email security, encrypted messaging and security training for staff. It was founded by two former presidential campaign managers: Robby Mook, who worked for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, and Matt Rhoades, who was on Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign. The group is funded by board member investors Ron Gula, who founded Tenable Network Security and now heads a cybersecurity venture capital firm called Gula Tech Adventures, and LinkedIn co-founder Allen Blue — who both contributed $250,000. Participating vendors include Area1, Lookout, Agari and Wickr. 

I talked to Gula the day after the DDC announcement and asked him about it. Below is an edited Q&A based on that phone conversation. 

How did you come to be involved in Defending Digital Campaigns?

At Gula Tech Adventures we tried to put together a suite of our portfolio tools in 2017 for the 2018 election cycle and quickly learned about FEC rules (preventing in-kind donations), which led us to Robby and Matt. When they were forming the nonprofit, they asked me to join their board. 

Why are you so concerned with helping campaigns with cybersecurity? 

It’s important for two reasons. 1) We have nation-state actors, as well as people inside the U.S., who want to embarrass politicians and steal their secrets to gain advantage. 2) It’s a good opportunity to teach candidates about cybersecurity so that when they do get elected, they know about encryption, authentication, two-factor security and other security measures. Whatever we do at DDC will help make the country more digitally savvy. 

What are the chances that foreign countries try to interfere in the U.S. election, or are already trying?

It’s not for me to say what may or may not be happening, but I will say candidates are very tempting targets to go after, and not just for our foreign adversaries. Attackers could be Americans, or ex-girlfriends or boyfriends, rival political parties, even their own supporters. 

How secure are our voting systems and databases from hacking?

We are focusing on communications systems used by candidates and campaigns, which is distinctly different than voting machines and social media disinformation campaigns. I do believe that if there was a candidate who was critical of Russia or China, attackers could try to keep the candidate from running in the primary and we might never see the attacks. 

How many campaigns or candidates is DDC helping so far?

DDC is trying to be a trusted resource for both parties, non-political and non-judgmental, so we’re not disclosing information about the candidates we’re helping. I will say we are offering what I consider to be boutique tailored advice because every campaign is different and their IT footprints are different. 

Stay tuned for more from our Security Outliers series. You can follow Ron on Twitter at @RonGula.