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16 December 2016

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. 

By Anjuli R. K. shere

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.

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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.

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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.