Cyber espionage is more and more likely to play a significant role in the extraordinarily consequential elections taking place in 2016.
First Russian-backed hackers breached the network of the Democratic National Committee and stole opposition research on likely Republican nominee for president Donald Trump. Now the Clinton Foundation — established by the family of likely Democratic nominee for president Hillary Clinton — seems to have been hacked.
Any organization with some geo-political importance should assume assume they’re next. And the smart ones were already worried.
“One British government official I spoke to commented that they would be disappointed if nobody would see them relevant enough to engage in spying,” says our cyber security advisor Erka Koivunen.
Even before F-Secure Labs sounded the alarm about the Russian-backed “Dukes” gang last year, government officials had been aware of the cyber espionage being enabled by Advanced Persistent Threats.
Anywhere there’s an event of international import — like the 2016 U.S. election or the “Brexit” vote on June 23, which will decide if the United Kingdom will stay in the European Union — you can bet hackers are aiming to get data that hasn’t been made public.
For the U.S. election, campaign offices or any organization related to the candidates are prime targets.
“It can be se said that all the campaign groups, the Democratic National Committee, the Republican National Committee and various Super PACs are operating in a ‘high-risk mode’,” Erka explains.
The details of the attacks help point a finger at the likely culprits
“The forensic tools they apparently used after the fact is what gave them the drop on their attackers,” Erka tells our Business Security Insider blog. “Organizations like the DNC are high-profile targets at the moment so they should have been monitoring their network carefully, and the RNC and others involved in the upcoming US election should take note and make sure they have the ability to detect attacks as they unfold. Relying entirely on forensic work has limitations, but it’s better than nothing and in this case the investigators were able to get evidence to help determine what happened and how the breach occurred, which lead to educated guesses about who was responsible.”
Though the perpetrators of both the DNC and Clinton Foundation attacks seem to be Russian, the risk of intrusion comes from both domestic rivals and international foes.
You may remember that the U.S.’s Watergate scandal that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon began with a physical breach of the DNC’s offices. And foreign leaders — such as Vladimir Putin — are very interested in any dirt Democrats may have discovered on Trump, who is new to politics.
Campaign and foundation networks — with large, transient and constantly stressed staffs — are the perfect target for the sort of tactics groups like the Dukes have used to fool users into inviting them into their network, including spearfishing.
For the Brexit vote, “campaign organizations would not be the primary target,” Erka says.
“Instead, EU’s and member states’ governments’ plans to respond to either outcome would be highly interesting to nation-states,” he adds. “The negotiation positions are the most valuable assets the governments both in the UK and in other member states have. Knowledge about those will be useful even for the more mundane purpose of financial speculation.”
Are such attacks taking place now?
“We can confirm that there is activity taking place towards the UK government. As this is happening on a continuous fashion it is however extremely difficult to tell whether it is specifically attributable to the referendum.”
So what should groups protecting data that other countries are after do?
“I would encourage campaigns like the DNC to plan and deploy a continuous monitoring scheme that would give out timely indication of not only the breach but also attempts to penetrate the controls and gain foothold,” Erka says. “Expect to be breached and make sure the evidence is preserved in a separately controlled place.”
Without such a scheme attacks could last, as the DNC one seems to have, for well over a year.
“Without access to ‘offline’ monitoring data you will have a slim change of conducting any investigation without tipping the attackers as they have a plan to hide their tracks, leave quickly and come back when the dust has settled,” he says.
Hackers are a lot like roaches. If you don’t clear them out completely, you may not see them anymore but they know how to right back in.
“Once in, these guys will have no difficulty in coming back again. They either leave backdoors that they can exploit or at least know the target well enough and literally inside out that they can plan their next inject by choosing several possible vectors.”
So you have two choices if you’re involved in international politics: protect your network or hope you’re so irrelevant that no one bothers to hack you.
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