IntelBrief: Malicious Hacking from U.S. Adversaries Targets Political Organizations
July 24, 2019
Bottom Line Up Front
• The success of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. election ensures that Moscow will employ similar disinformation efforts as 2020 approaches.
• Indicating the severity of the threat, DNI Dan Coats recently announced the creation of the federal government’s first ‘election threats executive.’
• Both governments and private sector firms have struggled to counter the malign influence of disinformation campaigns waged via social media.
• Protecting the integrity of the American election system needs to be viewed for what it is: a national security imperative that deserves the requisite resources.
The success of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. election ensures that Moscow will employ similar disinformation efforts in the lead up to the 2020 race. On balance, the cost-benefit analysis of intervention makes it too enticing for the Kremlin to resist, especially as the costs incurred by Russia have been next to nothing. Other countries, including both Iran and North Korea, have taken notice and have accordingly dedicated resources to enhancing their own cyber capabilities. Hackers from these countries have targeted political organizations in the United States hundreds of times just in the past year—and that accounts only for the attacks that were detected. Among the most targeted organizations have been think tanks and other non-governmental organizations and civil society organizations that work closely on election issues and political campaigns.
At the federal level, there is division and disagreement about both what occurred in 2016 and what dangers lie ahead in the coming year. President Trump has repeatedly refused to acknowledge comprehensive assessments conducted by various agencies within the intelligence community (IC), interpreting these assessments as a blow to his political legitimacy. On several occasions, the President has pushed back against the notion that Russian disinformation efforts helped sway the 2016 election, attempting to turn the IC’s assessment into a partisan issue. While the White House remains in denial, there has been some progress within other elements of the U.S. government. The Director of National Intelligence (DNI), Dan Coats, announced the creation of the federal government’s first ‘election threats executive.’ The appointment of Shelby Pierson as the election threats executive is an encouraging sign that, at least within the IC, the federal government is taking the threat seriously and preparing to identify, track, and attempt to deter continued meddling from a range of state and non-state actors. The Republican-controlled Senate is not expected to allocate more resources to deal with issues surrounding hacking before the next presidential election in November 2020.
Both governments and private sector firms have struggled to counter the malign influence of deliberate disinformation campaigns waged via social media. Even tech giants like Facebook and Twitter have struggled to respond adequately. Given the circumstances surrounding several high-profile cyberattacks, which have included the theft of personally identifiable information (PII) and other highly sensitive data from information systems and databases, most cybersecurity experts agree that more needs to be done. Where there is disagreement is over what role the U.S. government should play in protecting secure networks. Microsoft recently announced that it had notified 781 accounts of attacks and penetration attempts by nations. These accounts were part of a relatively new program called AccountGuard, designed to assist a wide array of organizations (federal/state/local/private/NGO) involved in work related to political campaigns and maintaining the integrity of democratic elections.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Moscow is at the forefront of probing and penetrating sensitive networks linked to elections and political campaigns, with Pyongyang and Tehran also highly active. ‘Fancy Bear,’ a hacking collective thought to maintain close links to elements of Russia’s military intelligence services, remains active in launching cyberattacks against a bevy of American institutions and organizations. And while more Americans are more aware of Russian and other foreign disinformation efforts now than when efforts were launched several years ago, the highly partisan nature of U.S. politics makes citizens especially vulnerable to well-crafted and relentless efforts to sow discord and distrust. Protecting the integrity of the American election system needs to be viewed for what it is: a national security imperative that deserves the attention and resources required to administer elections free from foreign interference.
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