Ten Days after US intelligence agencies pinned the breach of the Democratic National Committee last October on the Russian government, Vice President Joe Biden promised government would “send a message” to the Kremlin. Two months later, the White House announced new sanctions against a handful of Russian officials and companies, and kicked 35 Russian diplomats out of the country. Six months later, it appears that the message has been thoroughly ignored. The Russian hackers who gleefully spilled the emails of the DNC, Colin Powell, and the Clinton campaign remain as busy as ever, this time targeting the elections of France and Germany. And that failure to stop Russia’s online adventurism, cybersecurity analysts say, points to a rare sort of failure in digital diplomacy: Even after clearly identifying the hackers behind one the most brazen nation-state attacks against US targets in modern history, America still hasn’t figured out how to stop them.
In a recent report tracking the Kremlin-affiliated activity of the hacker group known as Pawn Storm, a.k.a. APT 28 or Fancy Bear, the security firm Trend Micro identified phishing sites that they say were used to target the political campaigns of left-leaning politicians Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel in upcoming French and German elections. The analysts also found that the phishing domains had been registered in March and April of 2017, leaving no doubt the attacks started well after the US government’s attempt at deterrence last year.
“It seems like the opposite effect is happening. There’s definitely not even a slowing down” of the Pawn Storm attacks, says Trend Micro researcher Ed Cabrera. “It’s an emboldening.”
Speaking in a Senate hearing yesterday, FBI director James Comey had no illusions that the Obama administration’s response measures would keep Russian hackers away from future American elections, either. “I think one of the lessons that the Russians may have drawn from this is that this works,” Comey told the Senate Intelligence Committee. “I expect to see them to come back in 2018, and especially in 2020,” for the next US presidential election.