Row deepens over Putin and US election hack

Step by step: Intelligence agencies are ‘confident’ that Putin ‘personally directed’ the hack.

The CIA blames Russia. Trump says we ‘cannot be sure’. WikiLeaks says a 14-year-old could have done it. Did Vladimir Putin really hack the election in Trump’s favour? And so what if he did?

It could end up being a very awkward conversation. Today, US president-elect Donald Trump will meet with top intelligence officials to discuss why they have accused Russia of interfering with the election that put him in power.

In December last year, the CIA and the FBI both concluded that Russia was responsible for hacking the Democratic Party during the campaign. President Obama said it was authorised ‘at the highest levels of the Russian government,’ and punished the country with sanctions. But Trump is unsure. The same intelligence agencies have been wrong before, he reminded people. And hacking is hard to prove: ‘It could be somebody else.’

So what exactly happened?

Many newspaper headlines (including this one) say that the election was hacked, but that does not mean that anyone tampered with actual voting numbers. Instead, the hackers’ influence was far more subtle: by sending convincing phishing emails, they managed to access the accounts of senior Democrats, including Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager. Thousands of emails were published during the campaign, through several different channels — including WikiLeaks, the organisation led by Julian Assange.

The information was often damaging to Clinton, for example the evidence that the Democratic Party had favoured her over Bernie Sanders before her official nomination. The motive, says the CIA, was to spread enough doubt about Clinton that voters chose Trump instead. And it may have worked; her poll numbers dropped after the leaked emails were published in October.

But was Russia to blame? Intelligence agencies say yes; but their evidence is secret — yesterday they promised to publish more details next week. The cyber security firm CrowdStrike agrees, saying the hacks bore the signature of Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear, two hacker groups linked to the Russian government.

For Trump, however, that is not enough — and he has hinted that he may reveal something ‘other people don’t know’ to disprove it.

Hacked off

Come off it, say his critics. Can anyone really believe Trump and Russia (which denies its involvement) over the thousands of security experts who work at the CIA? Put the pieces together and the picture is perfectly clear: Russia has not just spied on America; it has actively tried to disrupt the most powerful democracy in the world. And it has succeeded.

Calm down, say others. Without seeing the CIA’s evidence we cannot be sure of anything. And even if Russia was responsible, it did not actually change any votes; Americans still decided who they wanted to lead them using their own judgements. Moreover, the USA has its own long history of meddling in foreign elections — this is nothing new.

You Decide

  1. Do you believe that Russia tried to hack the American election?
  2. The Republican senator John McCain says yes to the above, and he has called it an ‘act of war’. Do you agree?

Activities

  1. Produce a simple guide to staying safe online and avoiding hacks.
  2. If true, how should the United States respond to Russia’s hack? Write a report suggesting three things that its government could do, including pros and cons of each.

Some People Say...

“Government hacking is the biggest threat facing the world in 2017.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So someone released some emails. Is it really a big deal?
Yes. The leaked information damaged Clinton’s reputation before the election, although we don’t know if it changed the result. But leaking private information is not new. What would be new is Russia moving from spying to sabotaging the US democratic process. And this activity may not be over — some warn that European elections this year could get the same treatment.
Why didn’t we know sooner?
There were several warnings about Russia’s potential involvement in the election, including a separate report in October. But it seems that the Obama government chose not to condemn the hacks publicly at the time, thinking it might be even more damaging to Clinton’s chances of winning. Once Donald Trump had won, that was no longer an issue.

Word Watch

CIA
The Central Intelligence Agency published a report on December 9th concluding that Russia was involved.
FBI
The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the director of national intelligence both said they agreed with the CIA’s report, meaning there was a strong consensus across America’s intelligence community.
Phishing
This is the term for an innocent-looking email which convinces a recipient to send personal details.
WikiLeaks
Assange founded the website in 2006, the source of many major news stories ever since. Assange has denied that Russia sent him the emails from the Democrats.
Evidence
The Democratic National Committee (DNC) chair resigned in July after emails showed that she and others had been biased against Sanders.
Dropped
According to the data blog FiveThirtyEight, Clinton’s lead fell from 7% to 5.7% after the emails were released.
CrowdStrike
The company was hired by the DNC to investigate the hacks (or ‘data breach’).
Meddling
For example, the CIA has admitted being involved in a coup to overthrow the Iranian prime minister in 1953, and Chile’s president in 1973.