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Russian hackers who attacked DNC also targeted three 2018 campaigns, Microsoft says

Laptop computer with code (PXhere/Released)
July 20, 2018

A Microsoft executive revealed that Russian hackers have targeted three candidates currently running for election this year.

On Thursday, the Microsoft vice president for customer security and trust, Tom Burt, said his team found that three political candidates running for a 2018 election were targeted by a spear-phishing campaign, Buzzfeed News reported.

Burt’s team traced the phishing attack to a group Microsoft deemed “Strontium.” The group has been closely monitored by intelligence companies and is known to be a part of Russia’s military intelligence agency, GRU.

Burt did not provide the names or party affiliations of the afflicted candidates due to privacy concerns, but implied they were noteworthy incumbents running for re-election.

“They were all people who, because of their positions, might have been interesting targets from an espionage standpoint, as well as an election disruption standpoint,” Burt said.

GRU is the same agency connected to the 12 Russian military officers named in the indictment from special counsel Robert Mueller’s office. The officers were charged with hacking Democratic computer systems and emails during the 2016 Presidential election, and leaking their findings.

GRU members are suspected of responsibility in many global hacking and leaking efforts targeting adversaries of Russia, such as the 2017 campaign of French President Emmanuel Macron, as well as the World Anti-Doping Agency, which was responsible for reports that led to the 2018 Olympic Committee banning Russia due to doping.

Russian hacking efforts have been closely monitored by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which has maintained that it has not seen hacking campaigns against election systems.

Last year, the DHS designated election equipment and voter databases as “critical infrastructure,” thus extending the agency’s protections over the electoral system. The protections do not extend to individual campaigns, however.

DHS head Jeh Johnson said in January 2017: “It is important to stress what this designation does and does not mean. This designation does not mean a federal takeover, regulation, oversight or intrusion concerning elections in this country.”

Campaigns have been provided with free tools to improve their security, but have not received cybersecurity advice ahead of the 2018 election.

Director of  National Intelligence Dan Coats warned last week that Russian hacking could potentially interfere with this year’s elections. He said that Russia’s continued aggression and vulnerable digital infrastructure in the U.S. were compromised.

FBI Director Christopher Wray made similar comments this week when he warned that Russia is a serious threat to the U.S. electoral system, and that Russia continues to influence operations to divide America.

The national committees for the Republican and Democratic parties would not confirm whether or not their candidates had been targeted in the spear-phishing campaign.