Fri, Jan 13, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Russian hackers find ready bullhorns in the media

Hackers have strategized new ways of manipulating the free media’s openness to information and are capitalizing on the competitive climate

By Max Fisher  /  NY Times News Service

Illustration: Mountain People

As the dust settles on Russian interference in the US election, journalists are confronting an aspect that has received less scrutiny than the hacking, but poses its own thorny questions: Moscow’s ability to steer Western media coverage by doling out hacked documents.

Reporters have always relied on sources who provide critical information for self-interested reasons. The duty, tricky, but familiar, is to publicize information that serves the public interest without falling prey to the source’s agenda, but in this case the source was Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU — operating through shadowy fronts who worked to mask that fact — and its agenda was to undermine the US presidential election.

By releasing documents that would tarnish then-US presidential candidate and former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton and other US political figures, but whose news value compelled coverage, Moscow exploited the openness that is the basis of a free press. Its tactics have evolved with each such operation, some of which are still unfolding.

Thomas Rid, a professor of security studies at King’s College London who is tracking the Russian influence campaign, said it goes well beyond hacking.

“It’s political engineering, social engineering on a strategic level,” Rid said.

Great powers have long meddled in one another’s affairs, but Russia, throughout last year, developed a previously unseen tactic: setting up fronts to seed into the press documents it had obtained by hacking.

“Doing public relations work in order to get the hacked material out as an exclusive story with the Daily Caller or Gawker or the Smoking Gun, that is new,” Rid said.

That public relations work was initially done by two Web presences that appeared this summer, Guccifer 2.0 and DCLeaks, each posing as activist-hackers in the mold of Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks frontman. Though neither acknowledged it, and the links were not immediately known, online security experts later concluded that both were Russian fronts.

Guccifer 2.0 claimed to be a Romanian “freedom fighter” who had hacked the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Using Twitter’s private message service, the account conducted weeks-long exchanges with journalists, pointing them to certain documents that had been hacked from the DNC and other targets.

“Whoever is doing this understands media. They understand the way that media works and how to manipulate media,” said Sheera Frenkel, a BuzzFeed News reporter who interacted with the fronts throughout the summer.

DCLeaks, established separately and with its own sets of hacked documents, claimed to be “launched by the American hacktivists who respect and appreciate freedom of speech.”

The fronts sold the act by peppering their messages with slang and emojis. When Frenkel asked Guccifer whether it would release more DNC documents, the reply came: “Yeah baby :)”

Journalists who interacted with the accounts say their tone and facility with English varied widely, suggesting each was run by multiple users.

A reporter with Motherboard, a technology site, quizzed Guccifer on the technical aspects of the hacking and on rudimentary Romanian. Guccifer failed both, lending credence to theories that it was a front.

Those suspicions were initially restricted to security experts, trickling out only after firms such as ThreatConnect were able to unmask the fronts in detailed reports.

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