Cybersecurity expert explains difficulty attributing hacking to Russian government

A Utah Valley University professor says the possibility of President Donald Trump being a “Manchurian candidate” is unlikely, but notes that Trump’s position is useful to causing disorder in American politics.

Frederick White, an associate professor of Russian studies, and cybersecurity professor Robert Jorgensen offered an analysis of Russia’s cyber warfare techniques amid claims of collusion with Trump’s political campaign during a panel discussion at UVU on Tuesday.

The professors looked at the overall complexities of U.S.-Russian relations and the hacking techniques allegedly used to interfere in the elections as well as the potential that Trump was explicitly involved in the efforts.

“It is a salacious story . . . that somehow Trump, from the very beginning was Putin’s choice,” White said of allegations of improper relations between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. “It is important to say that I do not think that that was the original goal.”

White said he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government sought to sow political discord and undermine the overall claim that the U.S. has a truly democratic process.

White spoke at length about both the diplomatic relationship between the U.S. and Russia and some of the intelligence tactics used by the Russian government.

White noted Russian intelligence utilizes both disinformation, such as “fake news,” and finding ways to compromise people, either through blackmail or exploiting character weaknesses.

White also said spy agencies tend to cultivate a wide array of tactics, as direct as blackmail or as subtle as a friendly business relationship, such as Trump’s 2013 Miss Universe Pageant held in Moscow.

“Was that done because they knew in 2012 or 2013 that Trump was going to become president? Of course not,” White said. “When they can make a hard approach, where they have something on somebody, they do it, and where they cannot, they just continue the relationship.”

White noted a political motive behind Russian interference may have been retaliation against Hillary Clinton for what Putin believes was an effort by her and U.S. intelligence services to discredit the 2011 Russian election when she was secretary of state.

Jorgensen addressed the methods for identifying hackers, which he called difficult, because of the ability to mask online identities and a hacker’s location.

“When we say, ‘This was Russia,’ we don’t always know 100 percent,” Jorgensen said.

U.S. intelligence agencies rely on a “level of confidence” to make the claims against the Russian government, he said. In addition to IP-addresses, which can be disguised, intelligence sources also looked at the language of the software used and had to establish trends in the techniques used throughout different attacks.

Jorgensen explained that one of the hackers of the 2016 election, Guccifer 2.0, exclusively used software written in Russian, and that the hacker’s claim of being a Romanian seemed suspicious when the hacker could not effectively communicate in the Romanian language.

He said that while some investigations seem to trace the hacks back to the Russian military, other hacks seem to come from Russian civilians, not affiliated with the government.

Jorgensen said some of the attacks, perhaps committed by organized crime, are done while the government turns a “blind eye” to the matter because the effort meets Russian interests without negatively implicating the government.

Jorgensen also discussed the hacking techniques used to steal information from the State Department and from the Democratic National Committee’s email servers.

“These are not really unique, novel kind of hacks,” Jorgensen said. “They sent an email saying ‘Hey, your password was messed up.'”

In other words, a fairly common phishing scheme.

Jorgensen said there is difficulty in trying to determine the exact measure of Russia’s culpability in the political hackings.

“There are certainly different perspectives on it,” Jorgensen said. “It’s one of those, ‘their side,’ ‘our side,’ and the truth in the middle sort of things.”


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