Russia’s attempts to manipulate the U.S. presidential election may be a turning point in an ongoing cyberwar that pits the United States and its western allies–Canada included–against multiple, shadowy enemies.
Bruce Colman, an Ottawa-based cyber-security consultant and e-commerce specialist, says the Russian saga is profoundly significant because U.S. intelligence disclosed in detail the mechanisms operatives used to hack U.S. political parties, most notably the Democrats.
“Companies now can turn around and build a mechanism to stop it,” says Colman. “By making that public, they’ve totally neutralized these guys in terms of their ability to keep operating.
“Now everybody knows these mechanisms and everybody’s IT department is running around nailing doors closed.”
In recently released reports citing a series of attacks, the FBI, the National Security Agency and U.S. Homeland Security said Russian civilian and military intelligence services (RIS) tried to “compromise and exploit networks and endpoints associated with the U.S. election,” as well as government, political and private-sector entities.
It gave the name Grizzly Steppe to what it called “malicious cyber activity” and described “an ongoing campaign of cyber-enabled operations directed at the U.S. government and its citizens.” The reports provided detailed methodology behind the attacks and subsequent leaks of Democratic party e-mails, asserting they were ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin to help elect Donald Trump.
After a classified briefing last week, Trump gave grudging acknowledgment to the existence of hacking but shrugged off other investigation findings.James Clapper, national intelligence director, told a hearing of the U.S. Senate armed services committee that the Russian efforts were multifaceted.
“The hacking was only one part of it,” Clapper said. “It also entailed classical propaganda, disinformation, fake news.
“Only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized the recent election-focused data thefts and disclosures, based on the scope and sensitivity of the targets.”
But Colman says there’s no reason to believe that the Americans aren’t doing the same things in other countries. Or that Canada is, for that matter.
“It’s unprecedented that it’s been verified and disclosed,” he said. “We don’t know that it hasn’t been going on forever everywhere. I’m sure [the Russians are] hacking every party everywhere around the world.
“If you’re a foreign power, you’d be looking at the two key parties in every state that you’re dealing with. The assumption is that every government is doing it.”
Clapper told Congress the agencies were not responsible for measuring the attacks’ effect on voter opinion.
Trump has said America should “move on” and cited WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange as dismissing the claims that Russia was behind the election hacking. Clapper and others at the hearing, however, said Assange is not credible.
Republican and Democratic senators alike came out in defence of the intelligence findings, raising the issue of whether the attacks should be considered an act of war and urging Trump to start taking them seriously.
“We should all, Republicans, Democrats, condemn Russia for what they did,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said on the weekend. “Most Republicans are condemning what Russia did. And to those who are gleeful about it: You’re a political hack. You’re not a Republican. You’re not a patriot.”
The reports said the agencies found spear-phishing campaigns dropped near-undetectable malware into the computer systems of government organizations, critical infrastructure entities, think tanks, universities, political organizations and corporations. The ultimate goal: information theft.
The agencies also found hacking was not limited to American targets. Russian operatives launched damaging or disruptive cyber-attacks on other, unnamed countries and, said the agencies, have continued spear-phishing since the election.