In the latest Jason Bourne film, in which Matt Damon takes on and defeats the nefarious CIA (again), hacking is a force for good. The film’s glamorous heroine breaks into the agency’s computers and extracts vital information about its dastardly black operations.
Real life is not quite as morally straightforward, however. By leaking emails stolen from the Democratic Party’s servers, apparently by Russian hackers, the WikiLeaks whistleblowing site appears to have strayed into murky territory.
WikiLeaks was once trumpeted as a freedom-enhancing platform for truth-tellers. Now the organisation and its founder, Julian Assange — who has been holed up for four years in the Ecuadorean embassy in London — seems to be working on behalf of, or in the interests of, America’s foes. Critics have accused it of “information vandalism”.
On July 22, three days before the start of the Democratic convention, WikiLeaks struck with perfect timing. A collection of 19,252 emails and 8,034 attachments from the Democratic National Committee (DNC), the party’s governing body, laid bare internal scheming against Senator Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton’s failed socialist rival for the nomination.
Sanders loyalists were outraged by the revelations, which cast a shadow over the first days of the convention and forced the DNC chairwoman, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida congresswoman, to resign.
That may be only the beginning. Assange, who has long denounced Clinton as a “liberal war hawk”, said last week that his site could release “a lot of material” relevant to her presidential campaign.
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Choosing between Clinton and Donald Trump, her Republican rival, Assange told one interviewer, was like making a decision between cholera and gonorrhoea.
This weekend it emerged that computer systems used by Clinton’s presidential campaign workers had been hacked.
The attack is thought to have come from an entity known as “Fancy Bear” which is connected to the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service, an official involved in the investigation told The New York Times. The same arm of Russia’s intelligence operation was also implicated in the attack on the DNC in which it gained access to research on Trump and other Republican candidates.
Attempting to shape the outcome of a US presidential election would be a new and unprecedented escalation in cyber-warfare.
Trump appeared to increase the potential damage last week by calling on Russia to hack and release the “missing” emails once held on Clinton’s private email server that have themselves been at the centre of a separate long-running controversy.
“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Trump said, in a reference to the now-deleted emails that Clinton kept on a private server during her time as secretary of state.
In fact it is highly likely that Clinton’s trove of 30,000 deleted emails has been stolen. “They were held on an unprotected server,” said Edward Lucas, author of Cyberphobia, a book on internet security. “If the hackers don’t have them, then they should be fired for not doing their job properly.”
Private conversations about fundraising or about the Clinton Foundation, the charity set up by Hillary’s husband, Bill, after he left the presidency could well emerge to embarrass Clinton.
Trump would certainly relish further ammunition for the “crooked Hillary” image that he is using to damage his rival.
Russia has a long history of cyber-aggression. In 2007 it is thought to have shut down much of the internet in Estonia in response to a row over a Russian war monument in Tallinn, the Estonian capital. Last year Ukraine’s power grid fell victim to a suspected Russian hack.
America and Russia are also known to play a constant game of cyber- espionage, probing for weaknesses in each other’s systems. But wading into an election campaign in this way would be unusually flagrant.
Is Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, really trying to install his man in the White House?
Trump’s admiration for Putin is no secret. He has described the Russian president as someone he would “get along very well with”. There has also been much speculation about his business links with Russia, although their extent is not clear.
Of more significance perhaps is Trump’s repeated questioning of the established international order, including America’s commitment to defend its NATO allies, which could be exploited by Russia.
Putin will have been cheered by Trump’s apparent willingness to consider recognising Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, which had prompted the imposition of sanctions.
Putin also has unfinished business with Clinton dating back to 2011 when, while at the State Department, she had accused him of rigging a parliamentary election and he had responded by claiming she had sent a “signal” to Russian opposition protesters to take to the streets against him.
The Kremlin’s strategy is nevertheless likely to be more complex than attempting to engineer a victory for Trump. It can also be seen as part of a broader information offensive which aims to show that western democracy is full of lies and distortions — and western attacks on its own system are little more than self-serving hypocrisy.
“I don’t think the Russians are really trying to bring out a specific outcome,” said Mark Galeotti, professor of global affairs at New York University. “It’s more like geopolitical trolling. And it may backfire — Trump could become tarnished by association.
“Russia does not really understand democratic politics properly. They have lit a fire but have no real way of knowing which way it’s going to burn.”