Speculating about the purposes of any hacking group is just that, speculation. However, now that Russian hacker interference has been identified in the political arena in more than one nation, there are a few points on the graph upon which one could draw a line.
It’s a game of battleship and investigators are zeroing in on the Russian hackers’ carrier ship (well, at least the little submarine).
Active Measures, Digitally
All eyes were on the 2016 US elections (more on that later) and other western nations learned a few lessons in cyber hacking: beware of fake news and misinformation, your security chain is only as strong as the weakest link, and Russia is not backing down in international aktivniye meropriyatiya “active measures.”
A couple of quick definitions:
- Fake news—The term has since been hijacked for anything with a political bend, but during the 2016 election Macedonian teens made thousands of dollars with fake news and ad revenue. Other sources of fake news exist, but it’s important to note how successful that forgery was.
- Weak security—Like thousands of others in the United States, Clinton’s campaign likely got hacked through simple phishing scams.
Other nations like France and Germany, watched the fake news and weak security during the US 2016 elections and created internal educational campaigns to try to secure their democratic process.
Still, Russian hackers took “active measures” to interfere—overt attempts to undermine the political system in another country. The term comes from the Russian anti-Reagan Cold War campaign. Rumors were spread that Reagan was essentially a puppet of the US military-industrial complex, in an attempt to prevent Reagan’s reelection.
While those attempts in the 1980’s may have been active, they were not very effective and Reagan won reelection in 49 out of 50 states, a level of unity that sounds almost fictional in the modern US era of political divide.
Today’s aktivniye meroprivatiya have taken a digital direction.
Russian Agenda Against France
In light of the election cyber hacking against the United States, French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron was on the alert. US intelligence officers had issued warnings, providing strong language (but withholding much evidence) about similar cyber-espionage in the United States.
Macron and his political party, En Marche, report that “thousands” of the very same types of attacks previously attributed to Russian hacking group Fancy Bear have been aimed at their offices.
Macron also states that thus far attempts have proven unsuccessful.
So why would Russia, and specifically Vladimir Putin, seem to favor President Donald Trump and French candidate Marine Le Pen?
Though Putin has made statements in support of both of those individuals during their campaigns, it may be more about what Putin doesn’t want than what he does. Hacking western elections may be motivated by:
- Political alignment—Former President Barrack Obama levied sanctions against Russia after the invasion of Crimea, which experts suggest caused about a 7% economic downturn. Hillary Clinton looked like more of the same. Similarly, Emmanuel Macron has taken stances within NATO and control of the Middle East with which Putin has expressed disapproval.
- Disrupting power—Experts call this Cold War 2.0, but during the height of the Cold War Russia was a much larger and more powerful nation. Putin’s nationalist agenda aims to strengthen the Russian economic power and political might. Instilling distrust in western political systems is one way to go about that.
- Insider data—Like other cyber attacks, sometimes the end objective unfolds throughout the process. Classic espionage operated the same way—gather data, which you may one day yield for power. WikiLeaks may have published the emails that were siphoned out of Clinton’s campaign, but hackers never successfully penetrated voting systems/software themselves. Modern warfare often has more to do with public relations and image than a direct attack. A whisper campaign, or carefully leaked data, can play into public opinion and undermine the democratic process.
- False information—When “active measures” and insider data are not enough, Russian political insiders attest, a dezinformatsiya campaign proceeds. That’s Russian for “false information,” like the fake news of the US political election. In France, Russian campaigns have attacked Macron’s sexuality and political alignment (calling him a “US agent”). Such smear campaigns are aimed at undermining the candidate in ways that might be believable or damaging to Le Pen supporters or undecided voters.
Something else for Americans to keep in mind: the US might be a super power and the very symbol of democracy in parts of the world, but France is only a couple of neighbors over (you pass through Germany and Poland and you are in former Soviet Belarus).
The reasoning might be slightly different, but the motives are likely similar.
Hacking and Perception
Cyber attacks often target the weakest link in a security chain. Phishing scams get around firewalls and misinformed personnel. Fake websites (like fake news) may closely mirror reality, closely enough to cause disruption. A wide connective base, like an entire government operating system or an industrial network, while offering convenience and centralized coordination, may also have more points of potential weakness.
The game of cyber warfare no longer needs to ask you to send money to a long lost relative or your bank account information to get a deposit: just undermining the security of your operation is enough to create a public relations nightmare with subsequent economic impact.
Threat mitigation services, with industry insight and hacking prevention software, are necessary, at every organizational level, to protect digital data.
There’s no duck and cover in the event of a Russian digital attack.