Who Hacked The Democratic National Committee?

Cold cyberwar
A Hacker Infiltrating A Computer
This isn't at all what hacking looks like. Real hacking is mostly people sitting around at computers. This depiction is much, much cooler. The Preiser Project, via Flickr CC BY 2.0

In the middle of a presidential campaign, a group of foreign spies infiltrates the information network of a political party. And then, another group of spies from that same foreign nation infiltrates the same network, but in a much clumsier way. The political party finds out and goes public.

The stolen information is released, first a few selected documents to a select publisher, and then later, what is presumably the whole trove ends up online. An individual, who is not a spy, reaches out to media to claim credit, but their story doesn’t check out. At the end of it, the chair of the party resigns.

This isn’t some cyberpunk thriller. This is a description of our cyberpunk reality.

Here are the relevant players of that above drama: the hacked party is the Democratic National Committee. The foreign power is Russia, and the first group of spies is the FSB, the Kremlin’s successor to the infamous Soviet KGB. The clumsier spies are from GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency. “Guccifer 2.0” is the name of the hacker who claims sole responsibility, and the whole trove was published by Wikileaks on Friday, after excerpts were published by The Hill. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, the embattled head of the Democratic National Committee, stepped down yesterday.

Thomas Rid, a professor of security studies at King’s College London and author of “Rise of The Machines,” has published the most definitive piece on the hack, worth reading in full, at Motherboard:

Rid’s story puts together in one place many puzzle pieces about Russia’s hack of the DNC, and the ways that stolen information found its way back online and into the public eye.

Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor who himself leaked a trove of documents and then fled the country, weighed in on the DNC hack and the assumed links to Russia. (An important caveat: Snowden at present lives in Russia as a guest). Snowden says that if there is evidence that Russia performed the hack, then the NSA, whose explicit mandate is to monitor foreign electronic communications entering the United States, likely has the evidence to firmly prove the link. Snowden tweets:

In the same thread, Snowden goes on to argue that the “the US Intel Community should modernize their position on disclosure. Defensive capabilities should be aggressively public.”

The inherent downside to making defensive capabilities public is that it gives attackers more information about what to avoid when attacking next. Still, if a defense is never used (and here the “use” is just to identify the source of the attack, to deter future attacks,) then it doesn’t do a lot to protect the people it’s meant to protect. Which, in this case, could include the next president of the United States.

Update: 11:50 AM. The FBI confirms that it is investigating the hack.