Did the Russians “hack” the election? A look at the established facts

Trump denies there’s any truth intelligence community claims of Russian interference in the election, claiming it could have been anyone.

thrump-winsPresident-elect Donald Trump continues to discount or attempt to discredit reports that the intelligence community has linked the hacking of the DNC, the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, and related information operations with a Russian effort to prevent Clinton from winning the election—thus assuring Trump’s victory. In his latest of a stream of tweets, Trump posted:

The hacking was brought up well before the election. And it was monitored as it was happening—by the intelligence and law enforcement communities and by private information security firms.

“CrowdStrike’s Falcon endpoint technology did catch the adversaries in the act,” said Dmitri Alperovitch, chief technology officer of Crowdstrike. “When the DNC brought us in to conduct an investigation in May 2016, we deployed this technology on every system within DNC’s corporate network and were able to watch everything that the adversaries were doing while we were working on a full remediation plan to remove them from the network.”

Much of the evidence from Crowdstrike and other security researchers has been public since June and July. But while the hackers may have been caught in the act digitally, the details by themselves don’t offer definitive proof of the identity of those behind the anti-Clinton hacking campaign. Public details currently don’t offer clear insight into the specific intent behind these hacks, either.

What is indisputable, however, is the existence of genuine hacking evidence. And this information certainly does provide enough to give the reported intelligence community findings some context.

The evidence

The FBI warned the DNC of a potential ongoing breach of their network in November of 2015. But the first hard evidence of an attack detected by a non-government agency was a spear-phishing campaign being tracked by Dell SecureWorks. That campaign began to target the DNC, the Clinton campaign, and others in the middle of March 2016, and it ran through mid-April.

This campaign was linked to a “threat group” (designated variously as APT28, Sofacy, Strontium, Pawn Storm, and Fancy Bear) that had previously been tied to spear-phishing attacks on military, government, and non-governmental organizations.

“[SecureWorks] researchers assess with moderate confidence that the group is operating from the Russian Federation and is gathering intelligence on behalf of the Russian government,” the report from SecureWorks concluded.

The DNC’s information technology team first alerted party officials that there was a potential security problem in late March, but the DNC didn’t bring in outside help until May. This is when CrowdStrike’s incident response team was brought in. CrowdStrike identified two separate ongoing breaches, as detailed in a June 15, 2016 blog post by CrowdStrike CTO Dmitri Alperovitch. The findings were based both on malware samples found and a monitoring of the breach while it was in progress.

One of those attacks, based on the malware and command and control traffic, was attributed to Fancy Bear. The malware deployed by Fancy Bear was a combination of an agent disguised as a Windows driver file (named twain_64.dll) in combination with a network tunneling tool that allowed remote control connections.

The other breach, which may have been the breach hinted at by the FBI, was a long-running intrusion by a group previously identified as APT29, also known as The Dukes or Cozy Bear. Cozy Bear ran SeaDaddy (also known as SeaDuke, a backdoor developed in Python and compiled as a Windows executable) as well as a one-line Windows PowerShell command that exploited Microsoft’s Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI) system. The exploit allowed attackers to persist in WMI’s database and execute based on a schedule. Researchers at Fidelis who were given access to malware samples from the hack confirmed that attribution.

In addition to targeting the DNC and the Clinton campaign’s Google Apps accounts, the spear-phishing messages connected to the campaign discovered by SecureWorks also went after a number of personal Gmail accounts. It was later discovered that the campaign had compromised the Gmail accounts of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and a number of other individuals connected to the Clinton campaign and the White House. Many of those e-mails ended up on DC Leaks. The Wikileaks posting of the Podesta e-mails include an e-mail containing the link used to deliver the malware.

After Crowdstrike and the DNC revealed the hacks and attributed them to Russian intelligence-connected groups, some of the files taken from the DNC were posted on a website by someone using the name Guccifer 2.0. While the individual claimed to be Romanian, documents in the initial dump from the DNC by Guccifer 2.0 were found to have been edited using a Russian-language version of Word and by someone using a computer named for Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet secret police. (The documents are linked in this article by Ars’ Dan Goodin.)

In addition to publishing on his or her own WordPress site, Guccifer used the DC Leaks site to provide an early look at new documents to The Smoking Gun using administrative access. The Smoking Gun contacted one of the victims of the breach and confirmed he had been targeted using the same spear-phishing attack used against Podesta.

The DC Leaks site also contains a small number of e-mails from state Republican party operatives. Thus far, no national GOP e-mails have been released. (The New York Times reports that intelligence officials claim the Republican National Committee was also penetrated by attackers, but its e-mails were never published.)

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Author: WITS Curators

Bo Washington is a Certified Computer Specialist and the owner and operator of Washington IT Solutions, a local Bartlesville computer repair company. He has been fixing computers since the late 90's and has clocked up thousands of hours performing hardware upgrades, system builds, software installations, virus and spyware removal using the most up to date techniques and general computer services.

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