The report, based on an internal document from the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), provides perhaps the strongest evidence so far that Russia manipulated the voting process and had an impact on vote tallies. It could be the bombshell that causes the Trump-Russia scandal to blow wide open. As a side issue, it might make U.S. Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), a generally thoughtful fellow, look foolish for ill-considered comments he made late last week regarding 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Is this serious stuff? Reality Leigh Winner, a 25-year-old federal contractor from Augusta, Georgia, was arrested yesterday and charged with leaking classified information to a news outlet. Her arrest apparently is connected to The Intercept story.
The Intercept is an online publication, started in February 2014, and created/funded by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. It started as a platform to report on documents released by Edward Snowden. From yesterday's Russian-hacking story:
Russian military intelligence executed a cyber attack on at least one U.S. voting software supplier and sent spear-phishing emails to more than 100 local election officials just days before last November’s presidential election, according to a highly classified intelligence report obtained by The Intercept.
The top-secret National Security Agency document, which was provided anonymously to The Intercept and independently authenticated, analyzes intelligence very recently acquired by the agency about a months-long Russian intelligence cyber effort against elements of the U.S. election and voting infrastructure. The report, dated May 5, 2017, is the most detailed U.S. government account of Russian interference in the election that has yet come to light. . . .
The report indicates that Russian hacking may have penetrated further into U.S. voting systems than was previously understood. It states unequivocally in its summary statement that it was Russian military intelligence, specifically the Russian General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate, or GRU, that conducted the cyber attacks described in the document.
The document adds significant detail to an assessment released by the Obama administration in January 2017. That assessment focused on a Russian propaganda effort to undermine public faith in the Democratic process. But the new information goes much further than that:
The NSA has now learned, however, that Russian government hackers, part of a team with a “cyber espionage mandate specifically directed at U.S. and foreign elections,” focused on parts of the system directly connected to the voter registration process, including a private sector manufacturer of devices that maintain and verify the voter rolls. Some of the company’s devices are advertised as having wireless internet and Bluetooth connectivity, which could have provided an ideal staging point for further malicious actions.
The spear-phishing expedition was central to the Russian scheme and might have given hackers command over key computer systems:
As described by the classified NSA report, the Russian plan was simple: pose as an e-voting vendor and trick local government employees into opening Microsoft Word documents invisibly tainted with potent malware that could give hackers full control over the infected computers.
But in order to dupe the local officials, the hackers needed access to an election software vendor’s internal systems to put together a convincing disguise. So on August 24, 2016, the Russian hackers sent spoofed emails purporting to be from Google to employees of an unnamed U.S. election software company, according to the NSA report. Although the document does not directly identify the company in question, it contains references to a product made by VR Systems, a Florida-based vendor of electronic voting services and equipment whose products are used in eight states.
The spear-phishing email contained a link directing the employees to a malicious, faux-Google website that would request their login credentials and then hand them over to the hackers. The NSA identified seven “potential victims” at the company. While malicious emails targeting three of the potential victims were rejected by an email server, at least one of the employee accounts was likely compromised, the agency concluded. The NSA notes in its report that it is “unknown whether the aforementioned spear-phishing deployment successfully compromised all the intended victims, and what potential data from the victim could have been exfiltrated.”
How disturbing could this scenario get? U.S. officials have said on multiple occasions that vote tabulations were not altered in the 2016 presidential election. But now, we know that might not be true. From The Intercept:
Mark Graff, a digital security consultant and former chief cybersecurity officer at Lawrence Livermore National Lab, described such a hypothetical tactic as “effectively a denial of service attack” against would-be voters. But a more worrying prospect, according to Graff, is that hackers would target a company like VR Systems to get closer to the actual tabulation of the vote. An attempt to directly break into or alter the actual voting machines would be more conspicuous and considerably riskier than compromising an adjacent, less visible part of the voting system, like voter registration databases, in the hope that one is networked to the other. Sure enough, VR Systems advertises the fact that its EViD computer polling station equipment line is connected to the internet, and that on Election Day “a voter’s voting history is transmitted immediately to the county database” on a continuous basis. A computer attack can thus spread quickly and invisibly through networked components of a system like germs through a handshake.
What could this mean for our country, for our democracy? The implications almost are too profound to imagine:
All of this taken together ratchets up the stakes of the ongoing investigations into collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives, which promises to soak up more national attention this week as fired FBI Director James Comey appears before Congress to testify. If collusion can ultimately be demonstrated — a big if at this point — then the assistance on Russia’s part went beyond allegedly hacking email to serve a propaganda campaign, and bled into an attack on U.S. election infrastructure itself.
Whatever the investigation into the Trump campaign concludes, however, it pales in comparison to the threat posed to the legitimacy of U.S. elections if the infrastructure itself can’t be secured. The NSA conclusion “demonstrates that countries are looking at specific tactics for election manipulation, and we need to be vigilant in defense,” said Schneier. “Elections do two things: one choose the winner, and two, they convince the loser. To the extent the elections are vulnerable to hacking, we risk the legitimacy of the voting process, even if there is no actual hacking at the time.”
Throughout history, the transfer of power has been the moment of greatest weakness for societies, leading to untold bloodshed. The peaceful transfer of power is one of the greatest innovations of democracy.
“It’s not just that [an election] has to be fair, it has to be demonstrably fair, so that the loser says, ‘Yep, I lost fair and square.’ If you can’t do that, you’re screwed,” said Schneier. “They’ll tear themselves apart if they’re convinced it’s not accurate.”
That brings us to Hillary Clinton -- and Al Franken. Based on her comments last week at The Code Conference in California, Clinton clearly does not believe she lost an honest election. From a CNBC report on the event:
Clinton . . . said that the majority of content surrounding the election was "fake news," originated in Russia. She also alluded to data firm Cambridge Analytica, which has said it helped Donald Trump's campaign. . . .
It's important for people in tech and business to understand the marriage of the "domestic fake news operations," the sophisticated Russian cyber units and the Republicans' more flush data repository, Clinton said.
"Putin wants to bring us down," Clinton said. "It's way beyond me. .... I believe that what was happening to me was unprecedented. Over the summer we went and told anyone we could find that the Russians were messing with the election and we were basically shooed away. .... We couldn't get the press to cover it."
Many on the right have accused Clinton of spewing sour grapes, saying in so many words, that she needs to "get over it." Even a prominent Democrat, Franken, joined that chorus in an interview last week with Katie Couric. Franken was asked if he agreed with a Democratic operative who said it was time for Clinton "to move on." Here is his answer:
"Yep. Yeah, I mean, I love Hillary, I think she was very prepared to be president of the United States," Franken said. "I think she's the smartest, toughest, hardest working person I know, and I think she has a right to analyze what happened. But we do have to move on."
In so many words, Franken was saying that Clinton and other Democrats need to move on from an election loss. But we don't know for sure that it was an "election loss." It's looking more and more like an "election theft."
If our democracy is to survive, we can't "move on" from that.