The Obama administration squarely blamed the Russian government on Oct. 7 for a series of hacks aimed at influencing the 2016 presidential election.
Over the past 18 months, online attackers have compromised the networks and computers of the Democratic National Committee, leaked email and other documents, targeted election systems, and attempted to interfere or undermine trust in the coming U.S. elections. On Oct. 7, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Intelligence Community (USIC) explicitly called out the Russian government as the perpetrator behind the hacks.
“The U.S. Intelligence Community is confident that the Russian government directed the recent compromises of emails from U.S. persons and institutions, including from U.S. political organizations,” the groups said in a joint statement. “These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the U.S. election process.”
The attribution comes as the Republican presidential nominee has stoked fears of election shenanigans and security experts have warned that states do not perform regular audits of elections and election systems. Those concerns were heightened when emails, reportedly from Democratic National Committee servers, were published by a person or group identifying themselves as Guccifer 2.0. In addition, over the past six months, attacks on voter registration databases and state election websites have increased.
A Cold War-era group of experts have been investigating the attacks, but Russia has been blamed quietly for the activities for months. While the United States has usually refrained from spotlighting the hacking activities of other governments, the attribution of the attacks to Russia comes as the two governments are at odds over the other’s approach to the war in Syria.
Because of the difficulty in identifying attackers and the diplomatic fallout from even correct attribution, the United States has only rarely blamed another nation for espionage and digital attacks. In December 2014, the Obama administration identified North Korea at the source of an attack that took down the systems and leaked emails from Hollywood studio Sony Pictures. And in May 2013, the United States pointed to China as the source of a series of espionage operations conducted over the internet for a period of years.
The DHS and USIC pointed to the recent disclosures of emails by an “online persona” using the handle Guccifer 2.0 as being consistent with the approach of the Russian government. The fact that the targets were aimed at influencing the U.S. election strongly suggests that senior leadership had to approve the operations, the groups stated.
“Such activity is not new to Moscow,” the government groups said. “The Russians have used similar tactics and techniques across Europe and Eurasia, for example, to influence public opinion there. We believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.”
The DHS and intelligence groups assured citizens that the attacks would not be able to affect the election process.
“[I]t would be extremely difficult for someone, including a nation-state actor, to alter actual ballot counts or election results by cyber-attack or intrusion,” the statement said. “This assessment is based on the decentralized nature of our election system in this country and the number of protections state and local election officials have in place. States ensure that voting machines are not connected to the Internet, and there are numerous checks and balances as well as extensive oversight at multiple levels built into our election process.”
The Department of Homeland Security has offered states “cyber-hygiene” scans to make sure that their systems are well-protected from run-of-the-mill online probes. In addition, the agency has created an Election Infrastructure Cybersecurity Working Group to raise awareness of the issues and ensure that states are taking the appropriate measures to secure their systems.