Trying to prove Kremlin role in U.S. election hacking will be difficult, frustrating

Americans must realize Russian patriotism, plausible deniability go hand in hand with cyber warfare

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Vladimir Putin has been far more vis­i­ble late­ly with state­ments on the Russian-U.S. elec­tion sto­ry. Well-schooled in the art of Russ­ian lin­guis­tic vagary, he alter­nate­ly has said that Russ­ian free­lance hack­ers may have been involved, or that a 3-year-old may have been involved, all with a taunt­ing snick­er. Journalists—and for that mat­ter, prosecutors—stuck in the lit­er­al­ism that con­strains the West­ern brain are left to chase dig­i­tal ghosts.

Bob Sul­li­van, jour­nal­ist and one of the found­ing mem­bers of

There is a crit­i­cal piece I believe many observers are still missing.

Last fall, I talked with Finnish secu­ri­ty expert Har­ri Hursti, who knows quite a bit about cyber war and Russ­ian think­ing. Even before the elec­tion, there were plen­ty of accu­sa­tions that Rus­sians were med­dling in the process, and there were firm denials from the Krem­lin. Both these things can be true, Hursti explained to me.

Here in talk-radio Amer­i­ca, we love a good “this or that” argu­ment: Either the Rus­sians hacked the elec­tion, or they didn’t. But that’s not how it works. There’s a con­tin­u­um of pos­si­bil­i­ties, and I’m sad to say, most of the options will prove unsat­is­fy­ing in the end for those who want a tra­di­tion­al smok­ing gun.

Relat­ed sto­ry: Did Macron hack the hack­ers, foil­ing Russ­ian influ­ence on French election?

Yes, there’s the pos­si­bil­i­ty that elite hack­ers in the Russ­ian mil­i­tary stole John Podesta’s email. And there’s also the pos­si­bil­i­ty that an annoy­ing teenag­er in the Unit­ed States did it just for fun. But in between are a host of oth­er possibilities.

End­less fin­ger pointing

Whose hands were actu­al­ly on the key­board and what orga­ni­za­tion real­ly deserves the blame for a hack? This is the prob­lem that cyber inves­ti­ga­tors often call “attri­bu­tion.”

Per­haps it was an elite pri­vate group of hack­ers in Rus­sia being paid by (and per­haps assist­ed by) Russia’s intel­li­gence forces. Or per­haps it was hack­er mer­ce­nar­ies get­ting paid by Rus­sia but work­ing in Chi­na, in Iran, in … San Diego. Or per­haps it was an unaf­fil­i­at­ed hack­er who found the “hack,” then “sold” it to the high­est bid­der. Or per­haps such free­lance groups had help they didn’t even real­ize was there, with tips (from Russ­ian agents?) care­ful­ly placed in hack­er hangouts.

Or, as Putin sug­gest­ed last week and Hursti sug­gest­ed to me last fall, “patri­ot­ic” Russ­ian hack­ers just did what came naturally.

If you read what Putin said last week, and what Hursti said last fall, the two are stun­ning­ly similar—which makes me believe that may be the best expla­na­tion we’ll ever get.

Accord­ing to CNN, Putin said this (remem­ber, this is a translation):

(Artists) may act on behalf of their coun­try, they wake up in good mood and paint things. Same with hack­ers, they woke up today, read some­thing about the state-to-state rela­tions. If they are patri­ot­ic, they con­tribute in a way they think is right, to fight against those who say bad things about Russia.”

Loy­al­ty to Moth­er Russia

And speak­ing to me last fall, Hursti said this:

Har­ri Hursti, secu­ri­ty expert and Nordic Inno­va­tion Labs co-found­ing partner

Some­thing we in the West­ern world don’t under­stand is how deeply patri­ot­ic Rus­sians are. Indi­vid­ual Rus­sians, and self-orga­nized groups, are will­ing to go to great lengths on their own, with their own ini­tia­tive, if they believe that what they do will ben­e­fit Moth­er Rus­sia, and/or in hope and belief that their actions, once known, will be rewarded.”

So these kind of self-ini­ti­at­ed actions, which do resem­ble orga­nized oper­a­tions, are com­mon­place. Bear­ing in mind that the self-orga­nized groups can have mem­bers whose day jobs are close to the gov­ern­ment, the remain­ing ques­tion is, is the gov­ern­ment aware of these groups, and if they are, are they encour­ag­ing or dis­cour­ag­ing? Which is some­thing we can­not know. But the fact of the mat­ter is that Rus­sia is self-orga­niz­ing and self-pro­vid­ing the capa­bil­i­ty of plau­si­ble deni­a­bil­i­ty which, in many cas­es, can be actu­al­ly true that they didn’t know.

So per­haps Hillary Clinton’s tor­men­tors real­ly were free­lancers just doing their duty. And who knows, a decade from now, they all might have nice homes and jobs in Moscow. But these things would be coincidences.

Gov­ern­ment in shadows

It should be obvi­ous that no inter­na­tion­al hack­er oper­ates in a place like Rus­sia with­out some kind of tac­it gov­ern­ment approval. Total­i­tar­i­an regimes can arrest and detain for as long as they wish. None of this hack­ing was done with­out facil­i­ta­tion by Rus­sians. Recall that all of it was done in per­fect har­mo­ny with Russ­ian geopo­lit­i­cal aims. Only the trag­i­cal­ly naive would think that a coin­ci­dence or attribute that to supe­ri­or cyber defense by the Repub­li­can Party.

For some time now, I have believed the Rus­sia inves­ti­ga­tion ulti­mate­ly will frus­trate inves­ti­ga­tors. They are very unlike­ly to find a pho­to of a Trump cam­paign work­er hand­ing a bag of cash to a Russ­ian hack­er as he types an email to WikiLeaks.

Clin­ton her­self made the best case I’d yet heard for col­lu­sion last week dur­ing her talk at the Recode con­fer­ence, argu­ing that the pitch-per­fect polit­i­cal tim­ing of hack­er releas­es dur­ing the cam­paign had to be direct­ed by some­one con­nect­ed to the Repub­li­can Par­ty and aware of its polling. Per­sua­sive, per­haps, but hard­ly evi­dence in a court of law, and prob­a­bly not even in a court of pub­lic opinion.

Col­lu­sion is going to be very hard to prove, for all the rea­sons Hursti explained. If these are free­lancers, a group of indi­vid­u­als act­ing on their own, oper­at­ing out of patri­o­tism, how can Amer­i­ca find Don­ald Trump or Vladimir Putin guilty of anything?

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pur­sue this inves­ti­ga­tion as far as it can go. It’s absolute­ly crit­i­cal to learn as much as pos­si­ble about how the Rus­sians influ­enced our elec­tion, and con­tin­ue to influ­ence West­ern democ­ra­cies. I’m afraid cyber war­fare and Russ­ian “kom­pro­mat” are a match made in heaven.

The prob­lem of attri­bu­tion and the mul­ti­lay­ered game of state­craft work per­fect­ly togeth­er, and Amer­i­cans bet­ter get used to it. Our best defense is a bet­ter edu­cat­ed, more skep­ti­cal public—one that won’t fall for fake news sto­ries about the pope endors­ing Trump or Clin­ton har­bor­ing pedophiles in a piz­za place. But since that’s a long-term project, we’ll need to build up our resis­tance to these tech­niques in oth­er ways. Now.

More sto­ries relat­ed to elec­tion hacking:
Cre­at­ing chaos at the polls: Putting elec­tion hack risks into context
To main­tain democ­ra­cy, dig­i­tal elec­tion net­works must be improved
Cast bal­lot for tighter secu­ri­ty on vot­er data

Posted in Cybersecurity, Data breaches, Featured Story