President Donald Trump
US President Donald Trump arrives for a rally on September 10, 2020 in Freeland, Michigan. Image Credit: AFP

Washington: The Russian military intelligence unit that attacked the Democratic National Committee four years ago is back with a series of new, more stealthy hacks aimed at campaign staff members, consultants and think tanks associated with both Democrats and Republicans.

That warning was issued Thursday by Microsoft, in an assessment that is far more detailed than any yet made public by US intelligence agencies.

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The findings come one day after a government whistleblower claimed that officials at the White House and the Department of Homeland Security suppressed intelligence concerning Russia’s continuing interference because it “made the president look bad” and instructed government analysts to instead focus on interference by China and Iran.

Microsoft did find that Chinese and Iranian hackers have been active - but often not in the way President Donald Trump and his aides have suggested.

Federal officials insisted that the Microsoft report was consistent with their own warnings, which named Russia, China and Iran as three countries seeking to gather information from the campaigns, and perhaps try to influence the outcome. But the most recent assessment by the director of national intelligence last month also said China preferred that former Vice-President Joe Biden win the 2020 election.

The Microsoft assessment may have complicated that finding because it found that Chinese hackers focused their attacks on the private email accounts of Biden’s campaign staff members, along with a range of other prominent people in academia and the national security establishment, including groups like the Atlantic Council and the Stimson Centre.

Notably, only one of the Chinese targets detected by Microsoft was affiliated with Trump, a former administration official whom Microsoft declined to name.

Firms like Microsoft and Google, because they sit atop global networks, have a front-seat view of suspicious activity and increasing motivation to make it public to warn their customers. The result, inevitably, is a tumble of reports from the private sector, which government intelligence officials will be forced to assess along with their own findings.

Thea McDonald, deputy national press secretary for the Trump campaign, said: “We are a large target, so it is not surprising to see malicious activity directed at the campaign or our staff. We work closely with our partners, Microsoft and others, to mitigate these threats.” She would not comment on specific cybersecurity measures the campaign was taking.

Biden campaign aware of reports

The Biden campaign said that it was “aware of reports from Microsoft that a foreign actor has made unsuccessful attempts to access the noncampaign email accounts of individuals affiliated with the campaign” and that it was preparing for the inevitable onslaught of attacks in the coming weeks. While the campaign did not confirm the company’s reporting, it has taken issue with the director of national intelligence’s assessment, issued several weeks ago, that Chinese leaders prefer Biden over Trump.

The Microsoft investigation also concluded that hackers related to Russia’s GRU, the military intelligence unit that oversaw the “hack and leak” efforts in 2016 that made emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign public, were going to new lengths to hide their tracks. They are routing some of the attacks through Tor, a service that conceals the attackers’ whereabouts and identity, which slowed the effort to identify the hackers.

So far, Microsoft officials said they found no evidence that hacking efforts this year were successful, but corporate officials noted that they had limited vision into Russia’s overall operations. They cannot say definitively that no materials were stolen or what Russia’s motivations may be. That, they said, was the role of US intelligence officials.


Microsoft’s findings come just two weeks after the director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, declared that he would no longer let intelligence agencies give detailed, in-person briefings about election interference to Congress. He said the restrictions were because of leaks.

In a statement, Christopher Krebs, who directs the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency at the Department of Homeland Security, said, “We are aware that Microsoft detected attempts to compromise email accounts of people and organizations associated with the upcoming election.”

Krebs noted that “none are involved in maintaining or operating voting infrastructure, and there was no identified impact on election systems.” He also said that the company’s “announcement is consistent with earlier statements by the intelligence community on a range of malicious cyberactivities targeting the 2020 campaign and reinforces that this is an all-of-nation effort to defend democracy.”

Krebs, who was a Microsoft executive before joining the Trump administration, said his agency was releasing Thursday “guidance for improving cyberdefenses against account compromise attacks.”

There is no question that Microsoft’s assessment complicates the administration’s narrative that China is a bigger threat to US elections than Russia, as both the national security adviser, Robert C. O’Brien, and Attorney General William Barr said in interviews last week.

And hours after his own Treasury Department announced fresh sanctions for election interference, Trump seemed to claim Moscow’s involvement was a hoax. “What about China?” he said at a campaign rally Thursday night. “What about other countries? It’s always Russia, Russia, Russia. They’re at it again.”

The report concludes that the Russian military intelligence unit has only accelerated its attacks, even after a series of financial sanctions, indictments of Russian intelligence officers and retaliatory cyberstrikes by US Cyber Command before the 2018 midterm elections.

Microsoft’s researchers concluded that the GRU hacking unit - alternatively known as Fancy Bear, APT 28 or Strontium to different industry researchers - has been aggressively hacking the personal email accounts of American politicians, campaign staff members and consultants on both sides of the aisle.

In just the two weeks between Aug. 18 and Sept. 3, the group targeted 6,912 email accounts at 28 organizations, obfuscating the attacks through Tor.

Standard espionage

China’s attack on Biden’s campaign appears to be an attempt at standard espionage, similar to its hacking of presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama in 2008, when Chinese spies gained access to internal position papers and emails of top campaign advisers for both candidates. Microsoft’s findings echo those of Google researchers this spring, who determined that the same Chinese group was targeting Biden’s campaign.

Microsoft also said Thursday that Iran’s hackers have continued to target Trump’s campaign, as the company first warned in October, albeit with limited success. Microsoft has managed to take control of 155 of the web domains that Iran is using for its attacks.

But Iran has remained persistent. Between May and June, according to Microsoft investigators, Iran’s hackers went into overdrive trying to break into the personal email accounts of Trump administration officials and campaign officials, apparently without success.

In terms of sophistication, security researchers overwhelmingly say it is Russia’s GRU hackers who present the gravest threat.

“Multiple cyberespionage actors are targeting organisations associated with the upcoming election, but we remain most concerned about Russian military intelligence, who we believe poses the greatest threat to the U.S. democratic process,” said John Hultquist, director of intelligence analysis at FireEye, which has worked with both parties. “The GRU routinely violates international norms and has not been dissuaded by indictments and other attempts to halt their malicious activity.”

Just before Microsoft’s announcement Thursday, the Treasury Department announced new sanctions on three Russians and a member of Ukraine’s parliament - who was described as a Russian agent - for their efforts to influence the upcoming election.