Hacking as political warfare

The US election hack shows the power of digital dirty tricks.

Ilya Naymushin/Reuters/File
Felix, a 10-year-old male polar bear, inspects a watermelon with an image depicting Donald Trump, at the Royev Ruchey zoo in Krasnoyarsk, Russia, Nov. 10, 2016.

Russia almost certainly hacked into and stole information from the Democratic National Committee, as well as emails from the account of John Podesta, campaign chairman of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

That’s the unanimous conclusion of a report from the three preeminent US security agencies: the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the National Security Agency. The three said they had “high confidence” in their conclusions.

These agencies can’t “show their homework” to the public. The unclassified version of the report, released Jan. 6, doesn’t divulge the details of how the agencies reached their conclusions.

Security experts say it’s likely that more was involved than tracking digital bread crumbs back to their original sources; techniques such as old-fashioned wiretapping or other means of conventional intelligence gathering possibly were used.

The report was right to not attempt to assess the level of influence the Russian hacking may have had on the US presidential election. It would be a difficult task to sort out the effects of these leaks from myriad other factors that played into the outcome.

But that doesn’t make the Russian attempt any less disturbing. Concerns now are growing that elections later this year in France and Germany may come under similar attacks.

Beyond the hacking expertise on display, the Russians also showed a high level of news media sophistication, including handing information to WikiLeaks, the controversial organization that had previously released other stolen documents and had created international headlines.

Leaving several layers of intermediaries between Russia and outlets such as WikiLeaks made any digital “footprints” hard to track.

With a military and economy much weaker than those of the United States, Russia apparently turned to an unconventional means of exerting its influence – hacking. It may have been in response to what it saw as US involvement in the Panama Papers leak, which revealed offshore investments by associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as the revelations of widespread doping of Russian athletes at the Olympics and other international competitions.

The US hacking report said the goal of Russia was nothing less than “to undermine public faith in the US democratic process....” Had Mrs. Clinton won, Russia would have shifted its effort to erode confidence among Americans that a fair election had taken place.

Sens. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina and John McCain (R) of Arizona seem determined to look further into the situation.

“We need to come to grips with it and get to the bottom of it and overall come up with a strategy in this new form of warfare that can basically harm our economy, harm our elections, harm our national security,” Senator McCain said in a televised interview.

That strategy could go beyond simple retaliation. A President Donald Trump might be able to employ his reputed dealmaking skills. The US possesses its own significant cyberwarfare capacities. Rather than escalate the use of digital dirty tricks against each other, Russia and the US could look to conclude a “cyber détente” and broker a quiet end to tit-for-tat retaliations.

“Russia has been the dominant actor in state-sponsored espionage in cyberspace for the past two decades,” Tom Kellermann, head of the cybersecurity firm Strategic Cyber Ventures, told the Monitor recently. The US election hack has simply put a long-standing practice into the international spotlight. Now may be the time for quiet negotiation rather than noisy posturing.

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