Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and the Russian Dossier in Context Part Three: hacking and conclusion

Part Three: hacking and conclusion

Computer Hacking and Elections

In Mexico, there are two major political parties in contention now, the PRI who has been regaining its posture after Enrique Peña Nieto was elected the president, and the PAN who had wrestled the power away from the PRI in 2000 with the election of Vicente Fox. Prior to that, the PRI had dominated Mexican politics for decades. It took the PRI a few years to get back its footing in Mexican politics and although it has the presidency now, it depends on partnerships with the other parties to keep itself in the game. The PAN remains strong. Mexican politics has a long history of underhanded strong-arm politics and threats and subterfuge are no stranger to Mexican politics. In 2014, the State of Puebla was holding elections for party leaderships. The PAN party was facing a difficult challenge by two major contenders.

Rafael Moreno Valle, a close friend of Enrique Peña Nieto was being challenged for the PAN’s party leadership by Ernesto Cordero. Moreno Valle, who won the election, recently announced that he would be seeking the nomination for the Mexican presidency in 2018. Moreno Valle has also forged an alliance with the Peña Nieto’s presidency. The PRI and PAN working together.

The opponent, Ernesto Cordero camp felt that they lost the election because they believed that they had been hacked a few days before the votes were cast. [1] However, they had no proof and did not contest the outcome.

Hacking Team is an Italian IT company that provides hacking tools to its clients, mainly governments. In 2015, the company was hacked and its software and company files were posted online. Among its client lists were many Mexican government entities. As a country, Mexico was the largest users of its products. In the US, the Department of Defense (DoD), the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) were also clients of the company. [link]

After the Hacking Team files were publicly released, the Ernesto Cordero camp finally understood how their grassroots campaign program had been sabotaged. It was too late to argue the point.

The Hacking Team, like many, in the field use middlemen, or consultants to sell their hacking software. Through Kvant, Hacking Team provided the Russians with hacking tools between 2012 and 2014. An investigation by R3D and Lado B in Puebla produced evidence that the intrusion software was being used by the Puebla government, under Rafael Moreno Valle to intrude on the technologies of the political opposition. [1]

FinFisher is another company that specializes in selling intrusion, or hacking software. Mexico and the United States are or were clients of FinFisher. In 2014, FinFisher was also hacked and its digital assets were also posted to the Internet. A corruption scandal involving the purchase of FinFisher by the Mexican government exposed the use of the hacking software by the Mexican government against Mexican citizens. An intensive research study by Citizen Lab documenting Internet traffic with FinFisher metrics revealed that the hacking software was being used in at least 36 countries.

Like Hacking Team and FinFisher there are other companies selling and providing services to paying customers. Their modus operandi is to remain veiled in secrecy. We know that Mexico and the United States have used the software and techniques of both companies because the companies were hacked and their internal documents were posted to the Internet.

Their businesses, however, still operate in secrecy.

The Useful Idiots

The Russians have a tradition of using proxies to do their dirty work for them. The Mitrokhin Archive, discussed above, demonstrates this. Their use of proxies gave rise to the term useful idiots. Another term is useful innocents. Like the useful idiots, the useful innocents are also proxies for the Russians. There are many reasons why individuals work for Russian interests, some unknowingly.

The Russian intelligence apparatus has developed many methods to entice useful idiots to working for them. They range from money, sexual favors to just confused and misguided people thinking that they are serving a greater good.

Using proxies, the Russians can create layers of deniability and allows them the opportunity to create propaganda that is difficult to trace directly back to them.

Hacking is a specialized field that does not traditionally have a moral compass associated with it nor does it have nationalism at its center. Hackers, by design, are individuals focused on their own personal agendas. Most of them look for ways to make money, while others work to undermine an entity or a government that they have fixated upon.

Each of them is vulnerable to Russian enticements. For some it is money. For others, it is the ego of being involved in something secret. For others, it is nothing more than self-preservation – staying out of jail or protecting loved ones. Whatever their motives, they become pawns to the Russians.

Enrique Peña Nieto’s Hack to Win the Presidency

In August of 2016, Andrés Sepúlveda, a Colombian serving a 10-year prison sentence, boasted that he had helped Peña Nieto win the Mexican presidency in 2012 by using hacking and social media propaganda. Sepúlveda says that he had a $600,000 budget to hack for Peña Nieto. [link] Sepúlveda states that in addition to propaganda, he hacked into the computers of the opponents to steal position papers, draft of speeches and other internal campaign documents. Sepúlveda says that he used an army of Twitter bots to create an illusion of broad support and to push out propaganda. He says that he used similar techniques in Columbia, Nicaragua and other South American nations.

Enrique Peña Nieto has issued a broad denial through its office. In a 2016, in an article in The Guardian [2], Juan José Rendón, a Miami-based political consultant that Sepúlveda says was his go-between with the Enrique Peña Nieto campaign stated:

“Can you really change the will of the people through social networks? Maybe in Ukraine or Syria where there is no alternatives. But here (in the Americas) where there is TV, a free press and door to door campaigns, it is not so influential”

There are many who believe that the leaked Hillary Clinton and the DNC documents that were posted to the Internet had a detrimental effect on the 2016 US presidential elections. Regardless of the position one holds on the subject, the issue remains that leaked documents, through hacking, has had an impact on the discussions about the election.

The Trump Russian Dossier

The contents of the Donald Trump Russian Dossier remain highly controversial. Many have proffered that the contents have been “debunked”. It was recently revealed that Christopher Steele, a well-regarded former British intelligence officer is the author of the controversial dossier.

Although Donald Trump has labelled the report as “false and fictitious” filled with “phony facts,” the fact remains that the US intelligence services included a synopsis of its contents in briefings to Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Congress recently.
There is still much investigative work that needs to be done to ascertain the veracity of the report. However, in addition to proving or disproving, some or all the contents of the report, investigators should not lose sight as to the modus operandi of the Russian intelligence services.

In many ways, the Russian have achieved an intelligence goal that they often seek – undermining the US president’s ability to govern. Donald Trump is distracted by the report and a widening rift between his administration is getting worse each day. From a Russian perspective, this is an intelligence win for them as it not only distracts from Russia’s other worldwide activities, but it also undermines both the US presidency and the ability of the US intelligence apparatus to provide important information to the US administration.

While US voters argue over the veracity of the contents of the report, the US government is being weakened by the ongoing debate and questions about the fitness of Donald Trump to govern. This is classic Russian propaganda and “softening up” of adversaries.

The Russian operations are simple. To destabilize the United States, it just needs to create an illusion that the US government is untrustworthy. While the US is battling internally, the Russians are free to bolster their foreign policies worldwide while the US government and people remain distracted.

To under this, look no further then at the fact that Donald Trump’s approval ratings are dismal and that about 48% of US electorate does not support him. It is a classic divide and conquer strategy.

Sources:
1. Schwartz, Mattathias; Cyberwar for Sale; New York Times, January 4, 2017
2. Watts, Jonathan; Hacker claims he helped Enrique Peña Nieto win Mexican presidential election; The Guardia, April 1, 2016

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