The NSA leak about Russian efforts to hack the 2016 presidential election and the testimony of former FBI director James Comey last week revealed something that could become an extinction-level problem for the Trump administration.
First, in his public testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, James Comey stated what we already knew to be true. Russia tried to influence American politics, specifically the outcome of a presidential race. That he was not forthcoming with the details of how the Russians went about doing this was a breath of fresh air—a leader not saying what he shouldn’t. The many times the former director declined to elaborate on this or that point in no way confirmed or laid to rest the questions asked.
It is safe to say, from a cyber forensics point of view, that a state by state analysis of specifically what I’ll call the Russia effect is probably impossible. There are simply too many intangibles. So, even if former Director Comey had a smoking gun of collusion between Team Trump and the Russians, there would doubtless be ways to throw that evidence into the shadows of plausible unknowability.
That said, last week’s revelations put security experts in familiar territory.
One common feature of virtually every hack is the exploitation of a vulnerability. Sometimes that vulnerability is known and avoidable. The personal or institutional use of obsolete versions of software is the most obvious example of a common way hackers get into targeted networks. Sometimes the exploit is very nuanced. It isn’t uncommon for two separate hackers to come up with similar exploits—and separate hacker groups sometimes work in concert on different attacks on the same target.
If you look at the Russia question purely as a cybersecurity compromise, we may have glimpsed the way the current investigation could play out for the Trump administration.
Thanks to the recent NSA leak, we now know that at least one of the vulnerabilities the Russians focused on was also identified by the Trump campaign as the way to win.
The independent prosecutor’s probe of the Russia question headed by former FBI Director Robert Mueller, is a murderer’s row of prosecution prowess—literal giant slayers—but one of the obstacles that the Russia probe faces regardless its fire power will hinge on a definition of hacking and, barring a smoking gun, just what constitutes sufficient evidence of collusion.
The probe’s working definition will have to include the notion of a figurative hack: what’s sometimes called a “life hack,” in this case modified to function as a non-cyber election “hack.”
There has been persuasive journalistic work that argues that the Trump campaign’s use of psychometrics played a crucial role in the Trump win—the attempt to use big data and marketing tactics to motivate or de-motivate voters. If one felt compelled to argue that Trump won the electoral college on his own steam, he or she would have to point to the psychometrics “hack.” And were we to give that hack a generic name, it would be voter suppression.
So now, whether or not you think the NSA leak was an own-goal on the part of a Trump-hostile intelligence community, we have confirmation from the IC that the Russians were trying to change the election results—a sort of electoral “Red Dawn” moment in the history of our nation.
A fearful symmetry emerges. The NSA leaked document that showed at least one focus of the Russian cyber invasion of America aligned perfectly with the Trump campaign’s modus operandi: voter suppression.
So, let’s puzzle out what we know. The Trump campaign focused on psychographics to specifically suppress the turnout of Obama voters on Election Day. There was a big buy on social media the last weekend before the election specifically pointed at suppressing the vote: Make it hard for hesitant Hillary voters to show up. It was very targeted. Hillary Clinton’s oft cited popular vote victory garnered polls in states that were always going to go her way. If anything untoward happened, it was micro-targeting turnout in battleground states where it did matter. And that is something hackers are very good at.
The fact that both the Russians and Trump shared a goal could suggest collusion or a blush-worthy coincidence. We’re still looking at a speculative mix of concrete and anecdotal evidence.
Way back in September 2016 there was a story that, hindsight being 20/20, perfectly fits the desert-landscape puzzle we’re working on. The voter registration systems in more than 20 states were infiltrated. This lines up pretty well with the more recent NSA leak that showed Russian hackers targeted a voting software supplier days before the election and sent more than a 100 spear-phishing emails to local election officials.
It doesn’t matter if the software company served battleground states. What matters is the overarching sameness of the way this election was targeted.
Let’s say for saying sake that there was collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign. They were trying to figure out what to do. They settled on the method, broke off into cells, and got to work. Fine. Now prove it. Not so easy.
Most Compromises Target a Company or An Agency, Not a Country
The worst-case scenario is that the United States was “hacked” by Russia, and we have an illegitimate president who was aided in stealing the election with a multipronged approach, specifically a variety of “hacks,” both literal and figurative, geared towards the strategic suppression of voter turnout.
There was the social engineering aspect. John Podesta fell for it, and who knows how many votes were lost as a result of the subsequent leaks regarding collusion between the DNC and the Clinton campaign to steal the election from Senator Bernie Sanders. It also took the form of fake news and micro-targeting Clinton voters. Then there are all the unknowns that were pointed at voting software, voter registration and election officials. That’s the stuff we may never know about.
Homeland Security has long known that voter security is a point of vulnerability in the United States. It used to be when a database was compromised identity theft, or the theft of intellectual property, were the two main concerns. The question we face now is whether or not the identity of our nation was stolen.
It’s hard not to wonder if the similarities between the Russian exploit (hitting voter registration/turnout) and the Trump approach (psychometrics and marketing pointed at suppressing voter turnout) are something more than the coincidental alignment of brilliant, albeit similar, minds.
Regardless, the current conundrum our nation faces is due in very large part to a lapse in cybersecurity protocols and a culture that doesn’t put security first. The time to make our election system less vulnerable has long since passed, but with the mid-term elections around the bend, the time to do something about that is now.