Security Lax? Sensitive Info Hacked: The DNC Learns the Hard Way

It's one thing to hear that your neighbor or cousin had his identity stolen online. It's quite another to hear that not even the accounts of high-ranking government officials and politicians are safe from attack. That's precisely what the Democratic National Committee (DNC) email leak proved.

What Happened?

On July 22, 2016, WikiLeaks published nearly 20,000 illegally obtained emails. Some cybersecurity experts, including Thomas Rid and the firm CrowdStrike, believe that a Russian hacker or group perpetrated the attack, and that it may have ties to the Russian government. They have near-unanimously dismissed the claims of an individual or group that attempted to take credit for the attack, known as Guccifer 2.0.

After removing the hacking programs, CrowdStrike firm analysts revealed that they believe the attacks to be the work of two separate groups, both tied to the Russian Federation. CrowdStrike encountered these groups previously, dubbing them "Cozy Bear" and "Fancy Bear." Fancy Bear, also known as the Sofacy Group or APT28, has a long history of targeting highly secured installations and organizations. Cozy Bear, also known as APT29, has a similarly frightening resume, having been responsible for a successful attempt to hack into the Pentagon email system.

The Consequences

In a Political Sense

The consequences of the hack fell largely upon those whose emails suffered interception, not on the hacker or hackers themselves, who are still unidentified. These consequences were primarily political in nature, in terms of direct effects within the United States. Because of the targets involved, and the fact that information required for identity theft went ignored in this hack, the belief is that the motivation behind the hacks is purely for Russian intelligence goals.

The content of the leaked emails led to a wave of resignations in the Democratic party, including its chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, its CEO Amy Dacey, Director of Communications Luis Miranda, and CFO Brad Marshall.

What about Bernie?

Negative remarks about Bernie Sanders and his campaign, prior to the Democratic National Convention, were one important factor in this spate of resignations. Schultz also faced accusation for misusing DNC resources to investigate and track one of her own political opponents, Tim Canova. A formal Federal Election Commission complaint came about because of that potential misuse of campaign funds.

Another factor was the inclusion of emails that revealed the party's fundraising and financial strategies, many of which were unethical if not explicitly illegal.

Cybersecurity in the United States: The Takeaway

Implications for US CyberSecurity

As pointed out by the president of CrowdStrike, Shawn Henry, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to eliminate attacks such as these. Most likely, the groups that coordinated these attacks had the backing and resources of a "skilled and determined state."

Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate for President, says that, "Whether it's Russia, or China, Iran, or North Korea, more and more countries are using hacking to steal our information and use it to their advantage."

Spearfishing and Its Dangers

Nonetheless, perhaps human error rather than technological weaknesses ultimately allowed the attacks to happen, at least this time. Dmitri Alperovitch, CrowdStrike's CEO, said that the cybersecurity firm believes that a tactic known as "spearphishing" may have been in use to breach the systems. These attacks require users to click on what appear to be legitimate communications from reputable users, but instead install malicious software.

These attacks weren't the first, or even the first initiated by these two groups, nor will they be the last. The most important takeaway from this for the U.S. is the understanding that cyberespionage is here to stay. Alperovitch describes the growth of cyberspying as "a thousand-fold increase." Undoubtedly, the resources that the country devotes to protecting its information and its citizens from espionage will be increasing as well.

The Rise of Professional Hackers

However, elite teams of hackers are not the only ones that pose a threat. A group of hackers known as "Crackas with Attitude" was responsible for hacking into the emails of CIA Chief John Brennan and the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper. Two members of this group were Americans: Andrew Otto Boggs (22) and Justin Gray Liverman (24), both of North Carolina. The remainder of the group consisted of teenagers living in Britain.

They used the information to "dox" (or make public the private information of) law enforcement officers. Once again, the belief is that social engineering played a more prominent role in the breach than mere technological prowess. The hackers called ISPs, posing as employees, to obtain the personal information of their targets, and then used that information to deduce their passwords.

Cybersecurity in the Future

Cybersecurity is only going to continue to become a more pressing concern, both for individuals and for organizations. While it's unlikely that any system is completely secure, with no vulnerabilities whatsoever, it's also important to remember that our own behaviors can play a role in data breaches of this nature, as well. When we engage in best practices that prioritize our cybersecurity, such as avoiding unfamiliar emails and requiring proper identification from employees, we greatly reduce our risk.

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