Working through the cybersecurity firm, Secureworks, the Associated Press has obtained a leaked “digital hit list” of Russian Cyberwarfare and hacking targets in both the U.S. and abroad. The list virtually cements the connection between Russian hacking efforts and the Kremlin, and confirms that Russia has developed a sophisticated method of cyberwarfare that is being deployed-- and will continue to be deployed-- not only to subvert elections in the U.S. and Europe, but against any internal figures opposed to the Putin regime.
The list provides the most detailed forensic evidence yet of the close alignment between the hackers and the Russian government, exposing an operation that went back years and tried to break into the inboxes of 4,700 Gmail users — from the pope’s representative in Kiev to the punk band Pussy Riot in Moscow. The targets were spread among 116 countries.
“It’s a wish list of who you’d want to target to further Russian interests,” said Keir Giles, director of the Conflict Studies Research Center in Cambridge, England, and one of five outside experts who reviewed the AP’s findings. He said the data was “a master list of individuals whom Russia would like to spy on, embarrass, discredit or silence.”
The AP’s findings analyzed approximately 19000 malicious links that were discovered by Secureworks after a Russian hacking group known as “Fancy Bear” inadvertantly exposed part of its phishing network on the Internet. The links, which cover a period between March 2015 and May 2016, revealed a direct connection between “Fancy Bear” and the leaked emails of John Podesta that roiled the 2016 U.S. presidential election last November. Most of the “targets” of these links were in the U.S., Ukraine, the Georgian republic, and Syria.
In the United States, which was Russia’s Cold War rival, Fancy Bear tried to pry open at least 573 inboxes belonging to those in the top echelons of the country’s diplomatic and security services: then-Secretary of State John Kerry, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, then-NATO Supreme Commander, U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, and one of his predecessors, U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark.
The list skewed toward workers for defense contractors such as Boeing, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin or senior intelligence figures, prominent Russia watchers and — especially — Democrats. More than 130 party workers, campaign staffers and supporters of the party were targeted, including Podesta and other members of Clinton’s inner circle.
This effort was indisputably conducted to attack those who opposed Russian geopolitical and economic interests, as well as the parochial interests of those within the Putin oligarchy. Ukraine, which was fighting a war against Russian-backed separatists, was also pointedly targeted, with the President, his son, and dozens of current and former ministers and lawmakers all hacked and their emails strategically disclosed. There is little if any doubt that the effort was directed entirely by the Russian intelligence services.
Jonah Shepp, writing for New York Magazine, explains just how serious and alarming this newly perfected method of warfare is, and its implications for the future of the United States:
Setting Donald Trump aside for a second, the story here is that the Russian government has developed a sophisticated digital propaganda and misinformation strategy based on using hacked data from public figures and institutions in countries of interest to influence public opinion and elections in those countries. Just about a year ago, they found out just how well this strategy could work, and nobody in the security sphere doubts they will use it again in 2018, 2020, and beyond. Unless we find a way to prevent or counteract this kind of foreign interference, it will quickly become a constant factor in our elections—and Russia won’t be the only country doing it, either.
Although Democrats were the ones primarily targeted by Russia last year, the reality is that this is neither a “Democratic” nor a “Republican” problem. Rather, it is a national emergency. Shepp emphasizes that the vast scope and insidious nature of this type of cyber assault is such that our government and Intelligence services must take steps to combat it—and soon, or we will in effect lose control of our democracy.
This isn’t simply a matter of getting people like John Podesta to use two-factor authentication on their emails. These digital instigators can create real-world events, such as when two separate Russian-bought Facebook pages organized both a group of anti-Islam protesters in Texas last year and a group of counter-protesters to square off with them in Houston. The implications of a tool that lets foreign actors weaponize the American public like this are disconcerting.
Part of the problem is that we have an Executive Branch that has for political reasons—despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary-- taken the position that these attacks and hacking efforts are “fake news” and somehow “invented.” That is the natural reaction of a politician who happened to have benefited from them, and that very unwillingness to acknowledge Russian involvement, as Shepp emphasizes, is actually a key component of the Russian strategy. It also explains why the Republican Party is loathe to acknowledge Russian involvement—it would de-legitimize them in the eyes of their base voters. But by refusing to acknowledge the obvious both Trump and the Republicans play directly into the Kremlin’s hands:
The masterstroke of Russia’s election disruption is that it’s very hard for any president, especially an ego-driven character like Trump, to acknowledge receiving that kind of help. If this gets reduced to a political fight over whether this administration is in bed with the Kremlin, and if the public becomes divided along partisan lines as to whether the interference happened at all, that will go along way toward ensuring that Russia’s digital army of hackers and trolls continues to work unimpeded.
Clearly, that ship has already sailed. Americans are being duped and influenced by Russian-financed cyber trolls right now, as we speak, in Virginia, and unless our government wakes up and takes steps to combat this menace, 2018 is going to be a bewildering, frustrating bloodbath.