Russian hackers attacked a leading supplier of voting software leading up to 2016 presidential election, and also attempted to break into the accounts of more than 100 local election officials just days before voters nationwide went to the polls on November 8, according to an explosive online investigative report published Monday — a report which casts a dark shadow over the results of the razor-close election in which Donald Trump emerged victorious despite losing the popular vote total to Hillary Clinton by nearly three million votes.
The report by the online investigative reporting site the Intercept is based on a leaked, but highly classified National Security Agency intelligence report that names the Russian military intelligence unit, known as the GRU, as the entity behind the attempted infiltration of 122 local election officials just days before last year’s election.
The leaked NSA intelligence report offers no evidence that voter registration records were actually altered by the Russian intelligence agents — but raises the ominous possibility that Russian tampering with the presidential election runs far deeper than merely stealing emails from the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign, and posting them online through Wikileaks and other sites.
For full details on the newly uncovered Russian election hacking operation, read the complete report by the Intercept correspondents Matthew Cole, Richard Esposito, Sam Biddle and Ryan Grim by visiting this link.
Both the Intercept and, independently, CBS News reported that they have confirmed that the leaked NSA intelligence document is indeed real. Also on Monday, the United States Justice Department indirectly confirmed that the document was genuine — by arresting and charging an employee of a federal contractor in the leak.
Reality Leigh Winner, 25, was accused of “removing classified material from a government facility and mailing it to a news outlet,” according to a CNN report. CNN also confirmed that the document referred to in the accusations against Winner was the same document that formed the basis for the Intercept story. In addition, CNN confirmed independently that the NSA document is authentic.
The entire leaked NSA document detailing the “spearphishing” attack on election officials by the Russian military intelligence hackers may be accessed and read by clicking on this link.
“Spearphising” is a form of cyberattack in which a hacker sends a forged email that appears on first glance to be from a person or business familiar to the recipient. When the victim clicks on a link in the email, a malware program is automatically downloaded into the victim’s computer — malware that grants hacker full access to the remote, private computer.
“Russian General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate actors… executed cyber espionage operations against a named U.S. company in August 2016, evidently to obtain information on elections-related software and hardware solutions,” the top-secret NSA report reads. “The actors likely used data obtained from that operation to… launch a voter registration-themed spear-phishing campaign targeting U.S. local government organizations.”
The “named U.S. company,” according to the Intercept report, was the Florida company VR Systems, a technology firm whose slogan on the company website reads, “Elections Are All We Do.”
Though the document does not allege that the Russian hackers were able to alter the outcome of the election, voting experts say that possibility cannot be ruled out.
“If someone has access to a state voter database, they can take malicious action by modifying or removing information,” Pamela Smith, president of watchdog group Verified Voting, said. “This could affect whether someone has the ability to cast a regular ballot or be required to cast a ‘provisional’ ballot which would mean it has to be checked for their eligibility before it is included in the vote, and it may mean the voter has to jump through certain hoops such as proving their information to the election official before their eligibility is affirmed.”
The report comes one day after NBC News aired an interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin in which Putin denied that his country’s government was involved in hacking or tampering with the 2016 U.S. presidential election. See an excerpt from that interview in the video below.
The leaked NSA document not only contradicts Putin’s account, it contradicts statements by U.S. President Barack Obama who said in December that the U.S. intelligence services saw no evidence of Russian election hacking after October of 2016. But the NSA document is dated May 5 of 2017, and is, according to the Intercept, “the most detailed U.S. government account of Russian interference in the election that has yet come to light,” raising the possibility that the intelligence on the Russian voter registration hacking operation may not have been collected at the time Obama made that assurance.
[Featured Image by Alexei Druzhinin/AP Images]