We Now Know How Russia Is Trying to Interfere in the 2018 Elections, and It's 2016 All Over Again

U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin speak to the media during a joint press conference after their private meeting on July 16, 2018 in Helsinki, Finland. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

During Thursday's Aspen Security Forum, Tom Burt, Microsoft's VP of Customer Security & Trust, warned the crowd that hacks, like those during the 2016 elections by Russian government operatives, continue to happen. Three midterm candidates already suffered cyber attacks from Russian hackers.

In 2016, Burt said his team discovered fake Microsoft domain names used by the Russian hacking groups —given code names like Scrontium, APT28, Fancy Bear and Pawn Storm— used to "phish" information from unsuspecting campaign staffers.

Phishing is defined as the fraudulent practice of sending emails or websites appearing to be from reputable sources in order to obtain personal information, such as passwords and credit card numbers, to gain access to a person's online data or accounts.

The Russian hackers in 2016 used their phished information to gain access to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) servers. They then stole emails and records from the DNC which led to further hacking.

The Russian intelligence operatives then leaked emails and private messages from the DNC as well as longtime Clinton aide Robert Russo and campaign chairman John Podesta. Russian operatives also famously contacted the Trump campaign with offers of damaging information about Hillary Clinton.

Through Wikileaks, the Russians released months of damaging disclosures about the Democratic Party’s nominee intended to influence the United States presidential election. The administration of President Barack Obama began looking into the Russian hackers in 2016 and the Trump administration continued the investigation through Department of Justice appointed and directed Special Counsel, Robert Mueller.

Now, in 2018, Burt stated during the cyber security conference, his team recorded the same phishing approach again.

Earlier this year, we did discover that a fake Microsoft domain had been established as the landing page for phishing attacks and we saw metadata that suggested those phishing attacks were being directed at three candidates who are standing for election in the midterm elections."

"We can’t disclose [their identities] because we maintain our customer privacy," Burt continued, "but I can tell you that they were all people who, because of their positions, might have been interesting targets from an espionage standpoint as well as an election disruption standpoint."

"We took down that domain, and working with the government we were able to avoid anybody being infected by that particular attack."

Burt's claims back up the announcement by President Donald Trump's handpicked National Intelligence Director, Dan Coats, who on Monday stated the Russians remained a viable threat to United States cyber security. Coats statement came after the President cast aspersions on U.S. intelligence agencies' clear evidence of Russian hacking by Tweet and during a joint news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland.

Trump took considerable criticism for his remarks and issued a statement Tuesday saying he misspoke.

During the press conference in Helsinki, after the closed door private meeting with Putin, Trump said he didn’t "see any reason why it would be" Russia hacking the United States to influence the 2016 election. Due to severe criticism, Trump later claimed that he meant to say he didn't see any reason it "wouldn't" be Russia.

But on Wednesday the President again denied Russia was definitely involved in the known hacks and said Russia was no longer a threat because Putin knows he is very tough.

The engineers at Microsoft call the Russian directed hacking group Strontium, but intelligence agencies  and cyber security experts also refer to them as APT28, Fancy Bear and Pawn Storm. Experts claim their activities intertwine with Russia’s military intelligence unit known as GRU.

While the hacking continues, as with many voters who skip midterm elections, Russian hacking remains at a lower intensity than during the lead up to the 2016 presidential election.

Burt also attributes the lower Russian hacking activity to seemingly lower stakes in the midterm elections where a presidency is not on the line. Burt stated,

"I would say that the consensus of the threat intelligence community right now is that we are not seeing the same level of activity by the Russian activity groups leading in to the midyear elections that we could see when we look back at the 2016 election."

"We don’t see the activity of them trying to infiltrate think tanks, academia and social networks to do the research they do to build the phishing attacks that they then launch," Burt explained. "We are not seeing ongoing activity like the one we were able to disrupt earlier this year."

But he also cautioned vigilance is still needed.

That doesn’t mean we are not going to see it, there’s a lot of time left before the election."

The United States intelligence community characterized the 2016 Russian cyber attacks as two pronged. The first employed bots to create social media misinformation campaigns against Hillary Clinton and in favor of Donald Trump. Social media outlets continue to work against this ongoing method of attack.

The second was the phishing to gain access to DNC records and internal correspondence, also designed to hurt the candidacy of Clinton and bolster Trump. Russian intelligence used supposed whistleblowing website WikiLeaks, contacting them via Twitter front account "Guccifer 2.0" in the second phase of their interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Since the 2016 elections, Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation resulted in over 100 criminal counts, 35 indictments, 5 guilty pleas and 4 convictions as of July 13.

The midterm elections are November 6, 2018. United States voters can mitigate the influence of foreign governments by performing due diligence on information online and casting their vote. In the 2014 midterms, only 38% of eligible voters bothered to cast a ballot.

Blaze TV

Continuing a steady slide to the right since her tenure as President Donald Trump's United Nations ambassador, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley is under heat for recent comments regarding the Confederate flag.

The comments came during an interview with far-Right Blaze TV host Glenn Beck.

Keep reading... Show less
Fox News

Former Vice President and current 2020 Presidential candidate Joe Biden erupted at a man during an Iowa town hall who accused him of actively working to get his son Hunter a board position on the Ukrainian energy company Burisma Holdings. Biden called the man a "damn liar" before challenging him to pushups.

Republicans seized on the moment as an opportunity to discredit Biden as a candidate, but Fox and Friends cohost Ainsley Earhardt's reaction may be the most deluded yet.

Keep reading... Show less
Bryan Woolston/Getty Images // @parscale/Twitter

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has repeatedly made clear that, after President Donald Trump solicited Ukrainian leaders to announce investigations that personally benefitted him, the decision to launch impeachment proceedings wasn't a political maneuver, but a constitutional mandate.

The move came after years of Trump's supporters, as well as some critics, insisted that impeachment would be political suicide for the Democrats.

Since shortly after the inquiry's announcement in September, support for impeachment outweighed its oppositon as more revelations surfaced of Trump's dealings with Ukraine, but his 2020 campaign manager Brad Parscale attempted to show that Pelosi's move to impeach would lose Democrats their House majority.

Keep reading... Show less

Shortly after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) announced that representatives would begin drafting articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy took the podium to defend the President and the Republican party as a whole.

It could've gone better.

Keep reading... Show less
SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images // MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

One day after the House Judiciary Committee's hearing on impeachment, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) held a press conference announcing that the House would begin drafting articles of impeachment, with a possible floor vote as soon as Christmas.

The press conference signaled the beginning of the end of the impeachment inquiry in the House.

Keep reading... Show less
Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The House Judiciary Committee, in its public impeachment hearing against President Donald Trump on Wednesday, consulted four constitutional scholars for greater insight to the legal implications of the President's Ukraine scandal—and whether they merit impeachment.

Three witnesses, called by Democrats, each made compelling arguments for the articles of impeachment with which Trump could be charged.

George Washington University professor Jonathan Turley—invited by Republicans—was the lone dissenter.

Keep reading... Show less