Understanding why Russia is disrupting the U.S. electoral race through cyber attacks is an important step in preventing it.
Followers of the 2016 U.S. Presidential electoral race are likely to have heard allegations that Russia was behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), the governing body for the Democratic Party, in 2015. The US government officially accused Russia of hacking last week, though the Russian government has refuted the allegations.
According to multiple cyber security firms and backed up by the US government’s allegations, the Russian hacker collectives ‘CozyBear’, ‘FancyBear’ and ‘Guccifer 2.0’ breached the DNC computer systems. Numerous confidential emails from the Democratic Party, and the financial details of donors were released via Wikileaks by Fancy.
The intrusions do not end there. Both groups have also been attributed to hacks of the Whitehouse, U.S. Department of Defense and multiple private sector organisations. As Figure 1 illustrates, hacking attempts on official agencies in the U.S. are on the rise, not just from Russia.
The US government’s accusing Russia of these attacks and thereby meddling in the presidential election further strains relations between Washington and Moscow.
Understanding the cause of Russian cyber attacks is crucial to addressing the risk it presents. Russia is thought to attempt regular cyber breaches on rival powers for three key reasons: the embarrassment a successful hack causes to a democratic country, to exert political influence over a rival through non-conventional means, and for espionage.
The U.S. is a target for Russian hacking, given it’s role as a beacon of democracy. Tensions between the two states remain high, although not overtly aggressive, and have done since the end of the Cold War. In effect, Russian cyber intrusions do not come as a surprise. They serve as a lower-risk method of foreign intervention than military action. Cyber attacks are yet to attract a military response. This means that states are more likely to take risks in cyberspace than in the ‘real world’.
Following ‘Guccifer 2.0’s’ online forum post, detailing the DNC hack, the Committee’s chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz resigned; a tangible and embarrassing blow struck by Russia. This served as a good reminder of how actions in the ‘virtual’ world can sometimes have ‘real’ world consequences.
2) Political Influence
The allegations that Putin is propping-up Trump’s campaign for political influence are compelling. Trump has already vocalised his disinterest in providing military support to NATO allies who do not increase their financial contribution to the organisation. The US’s military might is vital in NATO’s deterrence against Russian aggression. With no guarantee that Trump would support states on Russia’s western border, Putin may continue to test his luck. The annexation of Crimea proved the tolerance of the international community in Russian towards Russian expansion.
With Trump in power, supported by Moscow’s cyber leaks, NATO may stand by as Moscow furthers it’s western border. Trump even begged Russia to hack and leak Clinton’s files, a dig at the Democratic nominee’s infamous use of a personal server to send confidential emails whilst serving as Sectary of State.
U.S. voters will go to the polls, wondering if their vote could be manipulated by Russian hackers. The leak was made public intentionally. By exposing weaknesses in the US electoral systems, and indeed in the potential President, Russian hackers have potentially instilled fear and distrust in American democracy. After all, the U.S. prides itself on transparency, liberal values and freedom; values made a mockery of in the DNC hack. This public disinformation strategy has been seen in Ukraine. By spreading information, sometimes fabricated, Russia is able to influence public perception and undermine the ruling elite.
While collecting information using people on the ground is still crucial, the information age allows intelligence agencies to conduct espionage in new ways. The DNC hack, among the other reported (and unreported) security breaches in the U.S., was a strategy launched by Russia to gather information of the next American leader.
By analyzing the leaked documents, Russian intelligence can adopt their negotiation position accordingly. Policy briefing documents will provide Moscow with intelligence on U.S. policy making. What’s more, leaked financial records and personal contact details could leave US officials open to blackmail, or generate leads for future targeted hacks. This could potentially put a future President Clinton on the diplomatic back foot.
Russia will continue cyber attacks
The fact that the information was leaked online suggests that it was not stolen purely for espionage means. Rather, Russian hackers wanted U.S. voters to read the leaks, sowing uncertainty, fear and distrust across the voting population to sway public interest. The hack was embarrassing for the Democrats, perhaps losing crucial undecided voters. A U.S. President who is reluctant to support NATO means that Russia may have an opportunity to expand westwards, and it is therefore logical for Putin to have an interest in seeing Trump come to power.
As a symbolic attack on the liberal, democratic values of the U.S., Russian hacks of U.S. official interests are likely to continue in the foreseeable future. These attacks will not occur not as cyberwar, but rather as an tactic of espionage and foreign policy. As recent hacks have demonstrated, state-sponsored hackers may well already be lying undetected in government networks, collecting intelligence on the next U.S. President.