Experts suggest Russia is behind a wider-than-believed hack of Democratic campaign computers

The Takeaway
Computer screen

Kacper Pempel/Reuters

Experts believe that Russian hackers carried out last month's email hack of the Democratic National Committee, but now, it appears that hackers reached much further into the party than what was initially perceived, The New York Times has reported. The hack appears to have compromised even more organizations and more than 100 personal email accounts.

Even though Russia is using new technology to carry out cyber hacking missions, the nation’s fundamental strategy remains the same, says Gordon Corera, BBC security correspondent and author of "Cyberspies: The Secret History of Surveillance, Hacking, and Digital Espionage.”

Like during the Cold War, Corera says Russia is using these “influence operations” to try to spread propaganda and disinformation.

“That’s something that the Soviet Union and KGB were active in doing in the Cold War, and cyberspace hacking just offers a new way to do that effectively,” he says. “I think you can see the way in which they’re using technology to do something that they've characteristically done for many decades.”

Still, Russia is also attempting to keep its distance, at least publicly, in order to maintain leverage and some plausible deniability, says Corera.

“They won’t necessarily leak [information] themselves — they might give it to a third party to get it out there, and in this case it might be WikiLeaks — who may or may not know the original source of the information,” he says.

And the DNC isn’t the first to fall victim to this practice. Corera says it appears that Russian hackers accessed the network of a French TV channel last year and showed images from ISIS during a broadcast. At the time, it was thought that the hack was carried out by the terrorist group.

“That [tactic] during the Cold War, in the old days, would have been called ‘false flags’ — where you do something and pretend it’s someone else doing it,” he says. “You can see how spies use cyberspace to do things they’ve always done, but just in some innovative ways.”

What’s different about the DNC hack, Corera says, is not that the information was stolen, but that it was released.

“The kind of classic espionage is that you try to find things out because you want to know about it, but releasing information is more akin to this idea of ‘influence operations’ or active measures where you’re trying to change behavior by making it public,” he says. “That’s what was quite interesting, that’s the thing to look out for, and that’s where perhaps Russia has been pushing the boundaries of what was considered normal cyber espionage in the last few years.”

Though other nations, like the United States, Great Britain and Israel, may engage in cyber espionage, Corera says Russia is different because it is trying to influence political systems, not just glean information for intelligence purposes.

“But trying to do that covertly is the kind of thing that can also backfire,” he says. “I think that’s, perhaps, what might be happening — you get push-back because people don’t like the perception that another country may be influencing their elections, and it can end up being quite counterproductive.”

He continues: “Yet, we are in a new world of cyber espionage, of information operations, and of information warfare in which information is being weaponized, stolen, and used. And it’s being used by companies, by individuals, by governments against each other, by non-state actors against each other, and it’s certainly something we’ll have to get used to in the future.”

This story first aired as an interview on PRI's The Takeaway, a public radio program that invites you to be part of the American conversation.