Russian Cyberattacks Usher in New Age of Tech Espionage

December 21, 2016
By: Laura Stotler

In a rare display of unity in what has been a historically nasty and acrimonious U.S. political election process, Republican and Democratic senators came together this week, calling for creation of a bipartisan panel to investigate cyberattacks on the U.S. The panel will have a special focus on Russia’s alleged role in the attacks and the country’s seeming attempts to influence the U.S. presidential election.

The bridge across the political aisle points to how significant the hacks are, both from a political and technological perspective. “Recent reports of Russian interference in our election should alarm every American,” wrote the senators requesting the panel. “Cybersecurity is the ultimate cross-jurisdictional challenge, and we must take a comprehensive approach to meet this challenge effectively.”

The cyberattacks are the political equivalent of 9/11, Michael Morell, former acting director of the CIA, told The Cipher Brief last week. He said the allegedly Russian-directed cyber espionage is a direct attack on American democracy, elevating the whole business of spying and warfare to a new and dangerous level, using technology as the main weapon. How the attacks were pulled off so successfully, on such a massive scale, may be attributed to how easily technology can be manipulated to gather confidential data, distill it to its most dangerous form and disseminate it in an attempt to ultimately influence and shift public opinion.

The information-gathering portion of a cyberattack may be accomplished simply through a phishing email. In the case of the so-called Russian hacks, the massive amount of data gathered from the Democrats was then allegedly sent to organizations like WikiLeaks and Guccifer 2.0 for sifting and dissemination to the public.

It’s unclear whether that information ultimately influenced the outcome of the 2016 election, with President-elect Donald Trump denying any collusion with Russia and dismissing claims that the attacks helped his win. President Obama has vowed retaliation against Russia, telling NPR (News - Alert) last week that it would take place “at a time and place of our own choosing.”

What is clear, as the details and scope of the attacks begin to unfold, is that cyberattacks and hacking now have the potential and power to influence an election process – a dangerous threat to global democracy. That the Russians allegedly accomplished it first and on such a broad scale may be the thorn in U.S. intelligence agencies’ sides, but will act as an example for how the world at large moves to defend against future attacks. How the next stage of cyber espionage plays out remains to be seen, with technology advancing at an unconstrained pace and mixing with growing global tension and universal government greed.

Edited by Alicia Young