Leaked NSA Doc: Election Hacks Far More Widespread Than Originally Thought

A leaked top-secret National Security Agency document indicates that Russian hacking efforts around the US presidential election were much broader and more pervasive than originally known—and certainly state-sponsored.

The intelligence document was published by online news outlet The Intercept, just hours before the Justice Department announced charges against a 25-year-old government contractor named Reality Winner for leaking the information.

The document, which was heavily redacted during the process of the Intercept verifying its authenticity with the DoJ, indicates that Russian Military Intelligence executed several spear-phishing attempts against at least 100 state and local voting officials in the week prior to Election Day. It also mounted a cyberattack on at least one US voting software supplier.

Officials speaking on background to the Intercept noted that there is no evidence that actual election outcomes were affected by the meddling. However, the document concludes that the situation "raises the possibility that Russian hacking may have breached at least some elements of the voting system, with disconcertingly uncertain results."

The report said that the Russian plan was to gain access to systems at an e-voting vendor, in order to gather information needed to convincingly pose as a representative from that company. From there, the hackers would send spoof emails purporting to be from the vendor, in an attempt to trick voting officials into opening infected Microsoft Word documents. Those documents in turn would execute malware that would have given the hackers control over the local voting division’s network.

The report reads:

“Russian General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate actors … executed cyber espionage operations against a named U.S. company in August 2016, evidently to obtain information on elections-related software and hardware solutions. … The actors likely used data obtained from that operation to … launch a voter registration-themed spear-phishing campaign targeting U.S. local government organizations.”

The news comes shortly after Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested that “patriotically minded” private Russian hackers may have been behind the election-season hacking. However, the CIA and other organizations have said that it’s clear that the Kremlin was directly involved—a claim the NSA document backs up.

 “The insider threat landscape usually breaks down into three pieces: Malicious insiders, negligent insiders and compromised insiders,” said Morgan Gerhart, vice president at Imperva, via email. “To mitigate the risk, corporations should ask themselves where their sensitive data lies, and invest in solutions that directly monitor who accesses it and how.”

Winner, meanwhile, was arrested in her home over the weekend. The NSA contractor admitted to printing out the document and mailing it to the Intercept. She was easy to track down, being just one of six individuals who had printed the document. She faces a single charge of "gathering, transmitting or losing defense information."

“According to reports, the leaker was identified because of strong audit trails of who accessed what,” said Gerhart. “They can invest in solutions that help them pinpoint critical anomalies that indicate misuse of enterprise data stored in databases, file servers and cloud apps and that also help them to quickly quarantine risky users in order to proactively prevent and contain data breaches. This approach works across careless, compromised and malicious insiders.”

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