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Will Donald Trump let Russia's "Fancy Bear" hackers slip out of sight?

The Obama administration woke up to the cyber attack dangers too late. 

Even if you ignore the number of "shirtless Putin riding a bear" memes, the Kremlin appears to be on a lucky streak at the moment. Russia's withdrawal from the International Criminal Court was met internationally with a muted lack of surprise. The Assad regime, with Russian support, are taking back Aleppo. And then there are the accusations by the US intelligence community that Russian hackers played a significant role in the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election by hacking into the Democratic candidate's emails.

This is not the first time a state has appeared to hack into the US authorities’ networks – since 2003 there have been coordinated attacks, labelled "Titan Rain", attributed to hackers employed by the Chinese military. As the White House commented last Friday, there were even intrusions into the 2008 election campaigns. The difference in this case is that the "intelligence community made very clear that this was activity directed by the highest levels of the Russian government".

The idea that an outside force, and one that has already been labelled malignant by most of the world, had a hand in the rise of Donald Trump is appealing to many on the establishment left. As Obama put it in his Daily Show interview with Trevor Noah last week:

“What is it about the state of our democracy where the leaks of what were frankly not very interesting emails, that didn’t have any explosive information in them, ended up being an obsession? And the fact that the Russians were doing this was not an obsession?”

Notably, a group of both Republicans and Democrats from the Senate have released a statement calling for both parties to work together "across the jurisdictional lines of the Congress" to investigate the hacking scandal.

During the election campaign, Trump urged Russia to publish the hacked emails of his rival, Hillary Clinton. Now, though, the President-elect is denying any possibility of a Russian cyber intrusion, and denigrating the national intelligence agencies with whom, if he gets into office, he will have to work closely. But even if Trump manages to play down the connection, the gaping holes in digital security will not go away.

The evidence against Russia appears damning. Many different US departments – from the US Department of Homeland Security to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence – have scrutinised the hacking allegations, and all 17 intelligence agencies are in agreement that the hacks were directed by the Russian government. 

Although President Obama has asserted that the Russians did not use the stolen documents and leaked emails in a particularly "fancy" way, the hacking itself was highly sophisticated. The computer network of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) was hacked twice. Both attacks were reportedly carried out by cyberunits fitting the profile of "Advanced Persistent Threats". These use a diverse range of transmission vectors and attack techniques, with the aim of stealthy intrusions, so that the attack can go unidentified and untraced for as long as possible.

The first cyberunit, "Cozy Bear", never published any documents, but is believed to have maintained a low profile presence inside the networks of various US political bodies, including that of the DNC, for months. Its counterpart, "Fancy Bear", has been accused of generating two web-pages – Guccifer 2.0, and DCLeaks – both of which were created in mid-2016, and sharing stolen documents with WikiLeaks prior to Election Day. All the documents released, however banal, were analysed voraciously by the public and media.

So far, Russian president Vladimir Putin has denied any responsibility, and the hacker groups identified have denied any links to Russia. However, accusations that Russia is behind the election hacks continue to abound. A number of different cybersecurity companies have been looking into the attacks. One, FireEye, reported that at least one party to the assault on the DNC seemed to only be active during Russian working hours, and not at all during Russian holidays. There was also a digital fingerprint left behind in the Cyrillic alphabet, not unlike one left during a cyber attack on a French media network in 2015.

The White House is convinced enough of the evidence that on Thursday, its press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters he believed "the senior-most government official in Russia" was directly behind the cyber attacks.

For some crushed Clinton supporters, the question will be: why so late? The White House also appear to have taken a soft line on the attacks leading up to election day. At the September G-20 summit in China, Obama and Putin engaged in a 90-minute discussion on cybersecurity, and the US president has admitted that it was to be expected that other global powers would conduct cyber espionage, although he added "there is a difference between that and activating intelligence in a way that’s designed to influence elections". According to NBC, the lack of retaliatory action by the Obama administration can be attributed to the president’s conviction that Clinton would emerge triumphant in spite of the smear campaign, and so openly engaging in hostilities with Russia would be unprofitable.

While the White House can identify and condemn hacks, though, it has had a harder time grappling with fake news. There is no indication, for instance, that the ballots themselves were hacked. The decentralised US voting system would make this very difficult, although not impossible. The real fear is that the "troll farms" that proliferated falsehoods about Clinton, which helped to sway the public against her candidacy, were bankrolled by groups connected to the Kremlin.

The radical impact of fake news stories even after the election dust settled was demonstrated by "Pizzagate". WikiLeaks released a batch of emails belonging to John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chairman, and internet trolls started to allege that mentions of pizza in the emails were in fact coded references to paedophilia. The conspiracy theory quickly spread from the darkest subReddits to news outlets. Soon, anyone who had ever been linked to Podesta was implicated in the conspiracy theory – even James Alefantis, owner of Comet Ping Pong, a pizza restaurant Podesta sometimes patronised. After Comet Ping Pong was declared to be the centre of the conspiracy, a 28-year-old internet enthusiast, Edgar Welch, drove from North Carolina to investigate claims of an underground child sex slave ring. Once he arrived, he pulled out a gun and shot off locks in the building in the belief he would help free enslaved children. Upon finding no proof of the conspiracy, Welch turned himself in to the police. 

Trump vehemently denies having benefited from the election hack. However, the disproportionate release of so many Democratic documents compared to those of the Republicans supports the conclusion that the hackers were focused on disrupting Clinton's campaign. Obama has ordered a review into whether the integrity of the election was compromised, and even senior Republican Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, voiced his support for an inquiry. Three Senate Committees - the Senate Intelligence Committee, the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the Foreign Relations Committee – will perform their own bipartisan assessments. In extracts from an interview with National Public Radio, Obama vowed that there would be repercussions for "any foreign government [that] tries to impact the integrity of our elections". 

But the minutes are ticking by. In January, Obama will return to civilian life. Meanwhile, President-elect Trump has nominated ExxonMobil’s CEO Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State, a man who was awarded the Kremlin’s Order of Friendship in 2013. He has denigrated the intelligence community. It will soon be up to him to warn about repercussions in this highly complex new security area. So far, he has shown no appetite to do so. 

Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman

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On civil liberties, David Davis has become a complete hypocrite – and I'm not sure he even knows it

The Brexit minster's stance shows a man not overly burdened with self-awareness.

In 2005, David Davis ran for the Tory leadership. He was widely assumed to be the front-runner and, as frontrunners in Tory leadership campaigns have done so enthusiastically throughout modern history, he lost.

The reason I bring up this ancient history is because it gives me an excuse to remind you of this spectacularly ill-judged photoshoot:


“And you're sure this doesn't make me look a bit sexist?”
Image: Getty

Obviously it’s distressing to learn that, as recently as October 2005, an ostensibly serious politician could have thought that drawing attention to someone else’s boobs was a viable electoral strategy. (Going, one assumes, for that all important teenage boy vote.)

But what really strikes me about that photo is quite how pleased with himself Davis looks. Not only is he not thinking to himself, “Is it possible that this whole thing was a bad idea?” You get the distinct impression that he’s never had that thought in his life.

This impression is not dispelled by the interview he gave to the Telegraph‘s Alice Thompson and Rachel Sylvester three months earlier. (Hat tip to Tom Hamilton for bringing it to my attention.) It’s an amazing piece of work – I’ve read it twice, and I’m still not sure if the interviewers are in on the joke – so worth reading in its entirety. But to give you a flavour, here are some highlights:

He has a climbing wall in his barn and an ice-axe leaning against his desk. Next to a drinks tray in his office there is a picture of him jumping out of a helicopter. Although his nose has been broken five times, he still somehow manages to look debonair. (...)

To an aide, he shouts: “Call X - he’ll be at MI5,” then tells us: “You didn’t hear that. I know lots of spooks.” (...)

At 56, he comes – as he puts it – from “an older generation”. He did not change nappies, opting instead to teach his children to ski and scuba-dive to make them brave. (...)

“I make all the important decisions about World War Three, she makes the unimportant ones about where we’re going to live.”

And my personal favourite:

When he was demoted by IDS, he hit back, saying darkly: “If you’re hunting big game, you must make sure you kill with the first shot.”

All this, I think, tells us two things. One is that David Davis is not a man who is overly burdened with self-doubt. The other is that he probably should be once in a while, because bloody hell, he looks ridiculous, and it’s clear no one around him has the heart to tell him.

Which brings us to this week’s mess. On Monday, we learned that those EU citizens who choose to remain in Britain will need to apply for a listing on a new – this is in no way creepy – “settled status” register. The proposals, as reported the Guardian, “could entail an identity card backed up by entry on a Home Office central database or register”. As Brexit secretary, David Davis is the man tasked with negotiating and delivering this exciting new list of the foreign.

This is odd, because Davis has historically been a resolute opponent of this sort of nonsense. Back in June 2008, he resigned from the Tory front bench and forced a by-election in his Haltemprice & Howden constituency, in protest against the Labour government’s creeping authoritarianism.

Three months later, when Labour was pushing ID cards of its own, he warned that the party was creating a database state. Here’s the killer quote:

“It is typical of this government to kickstart their misguided and intrusive ID scheme with students and foreigners – those who have no choice but to accept the cards – and it marks the start of the introduction of compulsory ID cards for all by stealth.”

The David Davis of 2017 better hope that the David Davis of 2008 doesn’t find out what he’s up to, otherwise he’s really for it.

The Brexit secretary has denied, of course, that the government’s plan this week has anything in common with the Labour version he so despised. “It’s not an ID card,” he told the Commons. “What we are talking about here is documentation to prove you have got a right to a job, a right to residence, the rest of it.” To put it another way, this new scheme involves neither an ID card nor the rise of a database state. It’s simply a card, which proves your identity, as registered on a database. Maintained by the state.

Does he realise what he’s doing? Does the man who once quit the front bench to defend the principle of civil liberties not see that he’s now become what he hates the most? That if he continues with this policy – a seemingly inevitable result of the Brexit for which he so enthusiastically campaigned – then he’ll go down in history not as a campaigner for civil liberties, but as a bloody hypocrite?

I doubt he does, somehow. Remember that photoshoot; remember the interview. With any other politician, I’d assume a certain degree of inner turmoil must be underway. But Davis does not strike me as one who is overly prone to that, either.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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