On the morning of March 10, nine days after Hillary Clinton had won big on Super Tuesday and all but clinched the Democratic nomination, a series of emails were sent to the most senior members of her campaign. At a glance, they looked like a standard message from Google, asking that users click a link to review recent suspicious activity on their Gmail accounts. Clicking on them would lead to a page that looked nearly identical to Gmail’s password reset page with a prompt to sign in. Unless they were looking closely at the URL in their address bar, there was very little to set off alarm bells. From the moment those emails were opened, senior members in Clinton’s campaign were falling into a trap set by one of the most aggressive and notorious groups of hackers working on behalf of the Russian state. The same group would shortly target the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). It was an orchestrated attack that — in the midst of one of the most surreal US presidential races in recent memory — sought to influence and sow chaos on Election Day.
The hack first came to light on June 15, when the Washington Post published a story based on a report by the CrowdStrike cybersecurity firm alleging that a group of Russian hackers had breached the email servers of the DNC. Countries have spied on one another’s online communications in the midst of an election season for as long as spies could be taught to use computers — but what happened next, the mass leaking of emails that sought to embarrass and ultimately derail a nominee for president, had no precedent in the United States. Thousands of emails — some embarrassing, others punishing — were available for public perusal while the Republican nominee for president, Donald Trump, congratulated Russia on the hack and invited it to keep going to “find the 30,000 emails that are missing” from Clinton’s private email server. It was an attack that would edge the US and Russia closer to the brink of a cyberwar that has been simmering for the better part of a decade.
The group behind the hacks is known as Fancy Bear, or APT 28, or Tsar Team, or a dozen other names that have been given to them over the years by cybersecurity researchers. Despite being one of the most reported-on groups of hackers active on the internet today, there is very little researchers can say with absolute certainty. No one knows, for instance, how many hackers are working regularly within Fancy Bear, or how they organize their hacking squads. They don’t know if they are based in one city or scattered in various locations across Russia. They don’t even know what they call themselves.