The best hacks are always the simplest. When Russian hackers successfully attacked Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign chairman John Podesta in 2016, they didn’t need to use crippling ransomware or a complex zero-day exploit. Instead, the Russians used one of the oldest tricks in the hacker playbook: Email phishing. “Phishing is all about the bad guy — the attacker — sending a malicious email to a victim and fooling that person either to click on a link within the email or open up an attachment,” said hacker and computer security consultant Kevin Mitnick in an interview with CBS News. “When the victim [clicks the link or opens the attachment] their computer ends up being compromised and malware is installed so the bad guy has full control.” The goal of phishing attacks like those aimed at the Clinton campaign in 2016, says Mitnick, is to swipe sensitive information or to implant malware that will give the attacker access to the entire network. Once inside, hackers can move laterally across the computer system and swipe information from multiple email accounts, copy intellectual property, and cause irreparable damage.
The Russian hackers sent Podesta an email that looked like it was coming from Gmail, prompting him to change his password. When he clicked the button in the email, says Mitnick, Podesta entered his username and password, inadvertently revealing his login credentials to the Russians. “Then the Russians had access to all his email, downloaded it, and gave it over to Julian Assange at WikiLeaks and we know the rest of the story,” says Mitnick.
The rest of the story is articulated in the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on hacking. The March 2017 document provides granular detail about Russian cyber-tactics and states that the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, targeted at least 109 Clinton campaign staffers with 214 unique phishing emails.