Blaming Russia For the DNC Hack Is Almost Too Easy

CFR | 1 Aug 2016

Dr. Sandro Gaycken is the Director of the Digital Society Institute, a former hacktivist, and a strategic advisor to NATO, some German DAX-companies and the German government on cyber matters.

The hack of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) definitely looks Russian. The evidence is compelling. The tools used in the incident appeared in previous cases of alleged Russian espionage, some of which appeared in the German Bundestag hack. The attackers, dubbed Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear, have been known for years and have long been rumored to have a Russian connection. Other indicators such as IP addresses, language and location settings in the documents’ metadata and code compilation point to Russia. The Kremlin is also known to practice influence operations, and a leak before the Democrats’ convention fits that profile as does laundering the information through a third party like Wikileaks. Finally, the cui bono makes sense as well; Russia may favor Donald Trump given his Putin-friendly statements and his views on NATO.

Altogether, it looks like a clean-cut case. But before accusing a nuclear power like Russia of interfering in a U.S. election, these arguments should be thoroughly and skeptically scrutinized.

A critical look exposes the significant flaws in the attribution. First, all of the technical evidence can be spoofed. Although some argue that spoofing the mound of uncovered evidence is too much work, it can easily be done by a small team of good attackers in three or four days. Second, the tools used by Cozy Bear appeared on the black market when they were first discovered years ago and have been recycled and used against many other targets, including against German industry. The reuse and fine-tuning of existing malware happens all the time. Third, the language, location settings, and compilation metadata can easily be altered by changing basic settings on the attacker’s computer in five minutes without the need of special knowledge. None of technical evidence is convincing. It would only be convincing if the attackers used entirely novel, unique, and sophisticated tools with unmistakable indicators pointing to Russia supported by human intelligence, not by malware analysis.

The DNC attackers also had very poor, almost comical, operational security (OPSEC). State actors tend to have a quality assurance review when developing cyberattack tools to minimize the risk of discovery and leaving obvious crumbs behind. Russian intelligence services are especially good. They are highly capable, tactically and strategically agile, and rational. They ensure that offensive tools are tailored and proportionate to the signal they want to send, the possibility of disclosure and public perception, and the odds of escalation. The shoddy OPSEC just doesn’t fit what we know about Russian intelligence.

The claim that Guccifer 2.0 is a Russian false flag operation may not hold up either. If Russia wanted to cover up the fact it had hacked the DNC, why create a pseudonym that could only attract more attention and publish emails? Dumping a trove of documents all at once is less valuable than cherry picking the most damaging information and strategically leaking it in a crafted and targeted fashion, as the FSB, SVR or GRU have probably done in the past. Also, leaking to Wikileaks isn’t hard. They have a submission form.

Given these arguments, blaming Russia is not a slam dunk. Why would a country with some of the best intelligence services in the world commit a whole series of really stupid mistakes in a highly sensitive operation? Why pick a target that has a strong chance of leading to escalatory activity when Russia is known to prefer incremental actions over drastic ones? Why go through the trouble of a false flag when doing nothing would have been arguably better? Lastly, how does Russia benefit from publicly backing Donald Trump given that Republicans have been skeptical of improving relations?

The evidence and information in the public domain strongly suggests Russia was behind the DNC hack, even though Russian intelligence services would have had the choice of not making it so clear cut given what we know about their tools, tactics, procedures, and thinking.

The DNC hack leads to at least four “what if” questions, each with its own significant policy consequences. First, if Russia had poor operational security and misjudged its target, it needs to be educated about the sensitivity of certain targets in its favorite adversary countries to avoid a repeat of this disaster. Second, if Russia deliberately hacked the DNC to leak confidential information, it would represent a strategic escalation on behalf of the Kremlin and the world would need to prepare for difficult times ahead. Third, if the breach and leak were perpetrated by a bunch of random activists using the pseudonym “Guccifer 2.0“, it would be the first instance of non-state actors succeeding in creating a global incident with severe strategic implications, demanding more control of such entities and a much better design of escalatory processes among nations. Finally, it is entirely possible that this was a false flag operation by an unknown third party to escalate tensions between nuclear superpowers. If this is the case, this party has to be uncovered.

Despite to the many “what ifs,”  this incident is serious and requires a more thorough investigation and explanation than what is provided by a self-serving private sector IT-security industry and hobby cyber analysts.

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