By Austin Anderson
The past week has been an incredible week for American election observers. WikiLeaks, an organization famous for publishing classified information, surprised everyone on Friday with a treasure trove of Democratic National Committee (DNC) emails. The articles laid bare the conduct of the organization during the Democratic primary. Disgraced and facing the wrath of passionate supporters of unsuccessful Democratic primary contender Senator Bernie Sanders, Debbie Wasserman Schultz stepped down from her post as chairwoman of the DNC on Monday. By Tuesday, American intelligence agencies had come to the consensus that Russian intelligence agencies, specifically the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), were behind a malicious intrusion and information theft.
A supposed lone-hacker using the moniker “Guccifer 2.0”, a clear homage to Romanian hacker Marcel Lazar Lehel who famously broke into email accounts belonging to members of the Bush family and former Secretary of State Colin Powell, took credit for the hack and denounced Russian involvement. This ruse was exposed when the hacker’s Romanian language skills failed to impress reporters in an interview despite his claiming to hail from Romania. Other clues that led to Russian involvement included a reference to the founder of Soviet secret police, metadata showing that computers set to use Russian language settings had opened the files, and Internet Protocol (IP) addresses that had been used in previous Russian infiltrations. Experts currently suspect that Guccifer 2.0 is a denial and deception effort to mask Russian involvement. On Friday, both the fundraising arm of the DNC and Democratic nominee Hilary Clinton’s campaign admitted that they too had been targeted by Russian cyber espionage and that their secure information had been compromised. In each case, the attack had been discovered in June after these organizations noticed suspicious activity and hired cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike to confirm that they had been hacked and assess the damage.
It seems likely that the information gained from these intrusions was withheld until the moment when it could do the most possible damage. After all, Mrs. Clinton was aiming to use the week of her convention to unite her party against her Republican rival, Donald Trump. The DNC emails showed that a large minority of people who voted for Mr. Sanders had reason to believe that she had won the election through unfair advantages. By driving a wedge between her and this group, Russia is able to fracture her base. Furthermore, it erodes at the already abysmal perception Americans have of her trustworthiness, damaging her appeal to swing voters. One can only guess that the information pilfered from the most recent intrusions is being saved for the most opportune moment as well.
The fallout from this released information has affected actors in completely different ways. Mr. Trump, the man who undoubtedly stands to gain the most from Russian intervention in the election, has called for further attacks. While he walked the request back the next day, the fact of the matter is that the Kremlin clearly supports him. His rhetorical rapport with Russian President Vladimir Putin, his lack of support for the collective defense of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and his reluctance to assume the mantle of American leadership in global affairs make him an ideal candidate for Russian interests. A Trump presidency clearly favors Russia more than a Clinton one, due to her assertive stance on Russia while she was Secretary of State.
Intervening on behalf of that interest is the most concerning thing about this attack. While states have always used the threat of force to influence the decision-making of their rivals, this action violates the norms that have been warily constructed during the age of the Internet. State actors have destroyed property, as in the 2010 Stuxnet attack on the Iranian nuclear program, and have even stolen information before, as was suspected in the 2014 Office of Personnel Management (OPM) attack. However, a nation has never used a cyber attack to influence an election. Depending on the result of the November election, the attack could be an instance of one state using a cyber attack to encourage leadership change in another. Combined with the attacks on Ukrainian power grids last December, this shows an alarming trend towards irresponsible Russian action in the cyber domain. After all, an attack on critical infrastructure and undermining political independence is considered an act of aggression by the United Nations.
The response to these alarming actions has to be strong. While these leaks show that the American public is not always aware of their political system, free flow of information is much more threatening to a government that does not enshrine it in their laws than one that does. However, American signaling should not become the basis for our own attempted cyber regime change. Instead, the United States should push for greater clarification of what encompasses cyber espionage, such as the OPM hack, and when using these methods signals conflict. Codifying what constitutes an act of cyber war might be difficult, but it must be done if we are to avoid a security dilemma in cyberspace.
Austin Anderson is a Master’s Candidate at Patterson pursuing an International Security and Intelligence Major with a Bachelors Degree in Computer Science and International Relations from Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. He primarily focuses on the impact of technology on global security.