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October 31, 2017

Facebook, which employs thousands of software engineers, is turning to Harvard for help with solving a technical problem - how to keep foreign hackers at bay.

The social media giant says it wants to avoid being used again by Russia or any other foreign government seeking to influence U.S. elections.

Facebook has given Harvard's Kennedy School of Government a $500,000 grant to study digital threats to democracy and develop plans for campaigns to defend themselves from attacks.

Based at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, the project is teaming up with both Republicans and Democrats to create a playbook campaigns can follow to shore up their defenses against online incursions. The project is co-led by Robby Mook, Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign manager, and Matt Rhoades, Mitt Romney's 2012 campaign manager.

The launch of the project comes at the same time Facebook is under scrutiny for its role in the election.

Last week, CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the company would turn over to Congress 3,000 ads bought by Russian operatives during the 2016 election. During a Facebook Live stream, he said the company is enacting steps to ensure it is more transparent about how ads are bought on its platform.

"I don't want anyone to use our tools to undermine democracy," Zuckerberg said.

Speaking at Harvard's Kennedy School Institute of Politics, Rhoades said he's collaborating with Mook because, like the Clinton campaign, the Romney campaign was hacked.

It just didn't get as much publicity because it wasn't done in a very public way," Rhoades explained.

In the fall of 2011, the government notified the Romney campaign that it had been hacked by the Chinese. Rhoades said the cyberattack had a direct impact on campaign coffers.

"We had to use vital, precious, primary campaign, hard dollars - money that we wanted to use to win New Hampshire and Iowa - to upgrade our security," he said. "So I was well aware that it is a bipartisan issue." Fresh off a painful campaign loss, Mook said he was motivated to make sure no foreign governments use cyber tools to undermine U.S. elections.

"I was very upset about what happened," he explained. "Our campaign and a lot of Democratic campaigns were really vulnerable to these kinds of attacks and I didn't see anybody in particular talking about what we're going to do to help the campaigns."

Eric Rosenbach, the co-director of Harvard's Belfer Center, said bipartisanship is important so people see the efforts as credible.

"We don't want people to think that just because it's from Harvard it's a liberal democratic thing," he said.

Rosenbach served in the Obama administration as assistant secretary of defense for global security at the Pentagon, where he said he saw first-hand how the Russians were interfering with the presidential elections.

Web Extra: On Campus Radio speaks with Harvard Kennedy School's Eric Rosenbach

Now he wants to work from the outside to address the issue. He said the program can provide resources to campaigns without being hindered by the same red tape usually found in government.

"Some of it is just basic cybersecurity, and getting a playbook for campaigns to turn to when they want to improve their cybersecurity," Rosenbach said.

Rosenbach wants to make the playbook public so as many people as possible can benefit from it. Even though that means foreign actors and hackers will also have access to it, Rosenbach is confident the plans will help if used correctly.

"To use a very easy analogy: You have the playbook and it's the Broncos versus the Patriots," he said. "Even if the Patriots know exactly what the Broncos are going to do, if they execute well, they still can win."

Rosenbach said massive tech giants - like Facebook and Google - have an ethical obligation to intervene, but he admits it's more of a human issue than a technical one.

"I don't think that you will succeed by building a cybersecurity system that expects people will get off Facebook or that they'll get off their iPhone," he said. "But you have to help them understand how to protect themselves."

FRONTLINE: Putin's Revenge

Related: At The University Of Dayton, Cybersecurity Starts With Cyber Mindfulness

Earlier: How Cyber Hacks Are Changing Higher Ed

From UMass Boston to Vermont's Champlain College, institutes of higher education are trying to boost the number of graduates in a field that barely existed ten years ago: cyber security. And colleges and universities are scrambling to keep up with increased cyber security threats.

This story originally aired September 26, 2017. 

WGBH News' Esteban Bustillos contributed to this report.

Harvard, Facebook, new business models, cyber security, 2016 elections, global competitiveness

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