Headlines have buzzed over the past few months with a series of cyberattacks targeting the American political system leading up to the presidential election this November. While initially dismissing the attacks as simple data breaches that would have little impact on electoral integrity, the administration is increasingly voicing concern that the breaches have been part of an orchestrated campaign to sow doubt and disarray in the American political system. Of particular concern is the release of stolen material to shift the balance of public opinion towards or against the candidates, while at the same time creating a steady drumbeat of doubt around the security of the voting system such that in the case of a tight race the losing candidate could claim that voting was rigged.
This past March Bloomberg offered a poignant look at the world of campaign hacking, chronicling the life of a particularly prolific Latin American hacker-for-hire who was allegedly heavily involved in similar kinds of activities. One of the particularly intriguing techniques to emerge from the Bloomberg profile was the notion of covert data alteration, in which a hacker penetrates campaign computers and subtly alters data, rather than simply quietly stealing it, deleting it or holding it for ransom. By changing data in place, a hacker can not only adversely affect a campaign’s operations, but more importantly, by altering just a few datapoints, can sow doubt upon the campaign’s entire data operations in which no data can be trusted anymore.
This past November I wrote about the rise of precisely this kind of cyber-based covert influence, potentially coupled with synchronized attacks on physical infrastructure, in what I termed a new era of “cyber first strike” weaponry. What makes the cyberattacks to date so interesting is that while countries have always spied on the major political candidates of their enemies and allies, historically that material was stolen quietly, with an emphasis on not letting the candidates know the material had been taken. The goal was on simple intelligence gathering, creating profiles on the candidates and their inner circles while they were still communicating using civilian technologies that permitted easier and richer collection. This campaign cycle, on the other hand, the focus appears to have been more on directly influencing the election itself, selectively releasing information with careful timing to maximize real world impact.