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Russia Hackers Had Targets Worldwide, Beyond the Interference in 2016 US Election

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Russia Hackers
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during an interview about Russia Hackers. VOA
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The Russia hackers who upended the U.S. presidential election had ambitions well beyond Hillary Clinton’s campaign, targeting the emails of Ukrainian officers, Russian opposition figures, U.S. defense contractors and thousands of others of interest to the Kremlin, according to a previously unpublished digital hit list obtained by The Associated Press.

The list provides the most detailed forensic evidence yet of the close alignment between the hackers and the Russian government, exposing an operation that stretched back years and tried to break into the inboxes of 4,700 Gmail users across the globe – from the pope’s representative in Kiev to the punk band Pussy Riot in Moscow.

“It’s a wish list of who you’d want to target to further Russian interests,” said Keir Giles, director of the Conflict Studies Research Center in Cambridge, England, and one of five outside experts who reviewed the AP’s findings. He said the data was “a master list of individuals whom Russia would like to spy on, embarrass, discredit or silence.”

The AP findings draw on a database of 19,000 malicious links collected by cybersecurity firm Secureworks, dozens of rogue emails, and interviews with more than 100 hacking targets.

Secureworks stumbled upon the data after a hacking group known as Fancy Bear accidentally exposed part of its phishing operation to the internet. The list revealed a direct line between the hackers and the leaks that rocked the presidential contest in its final stages, most notably the private emails of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.

The issue of who hacked the Democrats is back in the national spotlight following the revelation Monday that a Donald Trump campaign official, George Papadopoulos, was briefed early last year that the Russians had “dirt” on Clinton, including “thousands of emails.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the notion that Russia interfered “unfounded.” But the list examined by AP provides powerful evidence that the Kremlin did just that.

“This is the Kremlin and the general staff,” said Andras Racz, a specialist in Russian security policy at Pazmany Peter Catholic University in Hungary, as he examined the data.

“I have no doubts.”

The new evidence

Secureworks’ list covers the period between March 2015 and May 2016. Most of the identified targets were in the United States, Ukraine, Russia, Georgia and Syria.

In the United States, which was Russia’s Cold War rival, Fancy Bear tried to pry open at least 573 inboxes belonging to those in the top echelons of the country’s diplomatic and security services: then-Secretary of State John Kerry, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, then-NATO Supreme Commander, U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, and one of his predecessors, U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark.

The list skewed toward workers for defense contractors such as Boeing, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin or senior intelligence figures, prominent Russia watchers and _ especially _ Democrats. More than 130 party workers, campaign staffers and supporters of the party were targeted, including Podesta and other members of Clinton’s inner circle.

The AP also found a handful of Republican targets.

Podesta, Powell, Breedlove and more than a dozen Democratic targets besides Podesta would soon find their private correspondence dumped to the web. The AP has determined that all had been targeted by Fancy Bear, most of them three to seven months before the leaks.

“They got two years of email,” Powell recently told AP. He said that while he couldn’t know for sure who was responsible, “I always suspected some Russian connection.”

In Ukraine, which is fighting a grinding war against Russia-backed separatists, Fancy Bear attempted to break into at least 545 accounts, including those of President Petro Poroshenko and his son Alexei, half a dozen current and former ministers such as Interior Minister Arsen Avakov and as many as two dozen current and former lawmakers.

The list includes Serhiy Leshchenko, an opposition parliamentarian who helped uncover the off-the-books payments allegedly made to Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort – whose indictment was unsealed Monday in Washington.

In Russia, Fancy Bear focused on government opponents and dozens of journalists. Among the targets were oil tycoon-turned-Kremlin foe Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who spent a decade in prison and now lives in exile, and Pussy Riot’s Maria Alekhina. Along with them were 100 more civil society figures, including anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny and his lieutenants.

“Everything on this list fits,” said Vasily Gatov, a Russian media analyst who was himself among the targets. He said Russian authorities would have been particularly interested in Navalny, one of the few opposition leaders with a national following.

Many of the targets have little in common except that they would have been crossing the Kremlin’s radar: an environmental activist in the remote Russian port city of Murmansk; a small political magazine in Armenia; the Vatican’s representative in Kiev; an adult education organization in Kazakhstan.

“It’s simply hard to see how any other country would be particularly interested in their activities,” said Michael Kofman, an expert on Russian military affairs at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington. He was also on the list.

“If you’re not Russia,” he said, “hacking these people is a colossal waste of time.”

Working 9 to 6 Moscow time

Allegations that Fancy Bear works for Russia aren’t new. But raw data has been hard to come by.

Researchers have been documenting the group’s activities for more than a decade and many have accused it of being an extension of Russia’s intelligence services. The “Fancy Bear” nickname is a none-too-subtle reference to Russia’s national symbol.

In the wake of the 2016 election, U.S. intelligence agencies publicly endorsed the consensus view, saying what American spooks had long alleged privately: Fancy Bear is a creature of the Kremlin.

But the U.S. intelligence community provided little proof, and even media-friendly cybersecurity companies typically publish only summaries of their data.

That makes the Secureworks’ database a key piece of public evidence – all the more remarkable because it’s the result of a careless mistake.

Secureworks effectively stumbled across it when a researcher began working backward from a server tied to one of Fancy Bear’s signature pieces of malicious software.

He found a hyperactive Bitly account Fancy Bear was using to sneak thousands of malicious links past Google’s spam filter. Because Fancy Bear forgot to set the account to private, Secureworks spent the next few months hovering over the group’s shoulder, quietly copying down the details of the thousands of emails it was targeting.

The AP obtained the data recently, boiling it down to 4,700 individual email addresses, and then connecting roughly half to account holders. The AP validated the list by running it against a sample of phishing emails obtained from people targeted and comparing it to similar rosters gathered independently by other cybersecurity companies, such as Tokyo-based Trend Micro and the Slovakian firm ESET.

The Secureworks data allowed reporters to determine that more than 95 percent of the malicious links were generated during Moscow office hours – between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. Monday to Friday.

The AP’s findings also track with a report that first brought Fancy Bear to the attention of American voters. In 2016, a cybersecurity company known as CrowdStrike said the Democratic National Committee had been compromised by Russian hackers, including Fancy Bear.

Secureworks’ roster shows Fancy Bear making aggressive attempts to hack into DNC technical staffers’ emails in early April 2016 – exactly when CrowdStrike says the hackers broke in.

And the raw data enabled the AP to speak directly to the people who were targeted, many of whom pointed the finger at the Kremlin.

“We have no doubts about who is behind these attacks,” said Artem Torchinskiy, a project coordinator with Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Fund who was targeted three times in 2015. “I am sure these are hackers controlled by Russian secret services.” (VOA)

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Facebook Profit Escalates with No Major Impact from Russia and it’s Advertisements

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Facebook Profit
Facebook Profit escalates declares CEO of Facebook. Pixabay.

United States, November 2: Facebook reported better-than-expected quarterly profit and revenue on Wednesday as it pushed further into video advertising, showing no sign of financial damage from the controversy over how Russia used the social network in an attempt to sway voters in the 2016 U.S. election.

The company’s shares, which hit a record earlier in the day, initially rose in after-hours trading, but later fell into negative territory. They have gained almost 60 percent this year.

Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg condemned Russia’s attempts to influence last year’s election through Facebook posts designed to sow division, and repeated his pledge to ramp up spending significantly to increase the social network’s security, something he said on Wednesday would affect profits.

“What they did is wrong, and we are not going to stand for it,” Zuckerberg said of the Russians, on a conference call with analysts.

Facebook is at the center of a political storm in the United States for the ways it handles paid political ads and allows the spread of false news stories. U.S. lawmakers have threatened tougher regulation and fired questions at Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch in hearings this week.

ALSO READ : Facebook does not Hire Journalists says Sheryl Sandberg 

Facebook, in a series of disclosures over two months, has said that people in Russia bought at least 3,000 U.S. political ads and published another 80,000 Facebook posts that were seen by as many as 126 million Americans over two years. Russia denies any meddling.

Facebook’s total advertising revenue rose 49 percent in the third quarter to $10.14 billion, about 88 percent of which came from mobile ads.

Analysts on average had expected total ad revenue of $9.71 billion, according to data and analytics firm FactSet.

Facebook in the third quarter gave advertisers for the first time the ability to run ads in standalone videos, outside the Facebook News Feed, and the company is seeing good early results, Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg told analysts on a conference call.

“Video is exploding, and mobile video advertising is a big opportunity,” Sandberg said.

More than 70 percent of ad breaks up to 15 seconds long were viewed to completion, most with the sound on, she said.

The 49 percent increase in total ad sales in the latest quarter compares with a 47 percent rise in the prior quarter and a 51 percent jump in the first quarter.

Facebook has been warning for more than a year about reaching a limit in “ad load”, or the number of ads the company can feature in users’ pages before crowding their News Feed.

Advertisers seem unfazed, though, spending heavily as the social network continues to attract users.

The nearly 50 percent jump in ad revenue “is phenomenal, especially when for the past few quarters they’ve been trying to bring that expectation way, way down. Yet it keeps going up,” Tigress Financial Partners analyst Ivan Feinseth said.

Of the Russia scandal enveloping Facebook publicly, Feinseth said: “In the bigger picture, I don’t think it’s a really big factor.”

Facebook Profit
Mark Zuckerberg repeated his pledge to ramp up spending significantly to increase the social network’s security which would affect Facebook profit.Wikimedia.

The company’s performance was strong in comparison with smaller social media firms Snap Inc and Twitter, Wedbush analyst Michael Pachter said.

“Facebook grew revenues by $3.3 billion year-over-year for the quarter. This is more than Twitter and Snapchat generate combined for the full year,” he said.

Facebook said about 2.07 billion people were using its service monthly as of Sept. 30, up 16 percent from a year earlier.

Analysts on average had expected 2.06 billion monthly active users, according to FactSet.

Net income rose to $4.71 billion, or $1.59 per share, from $2.63 billion, or 90 cents per share.

Analysts on an average were expecting the company to earn $1.28, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Total revenue increased 47.3 percent to $10.33 billion beating analysts estimate of $9.84 billion, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Various U.S. investigations into how Russia may have tried to sway American voters in the months before and after last year’s elections are hanging over Facebook and its competitors.

There is also proposed U.S. legislation that would extend rules governing political ads on television, radio and satellite to also cover digital advertising.

“We expect more scrutiny about Facebook’s ad system ahead,” analyst Debra Aho Williamson of research firm eMarketer said in a note. “We’re also monitoring for any signs that this investigation will have a material impact on ad revenue.” (VOA)