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British intelligence among first to sound alarm over Russia’s US hacks

© GCHQ/AFP

Text by Khatya CHHOR

Latest update : 2017-01-14

British intelligence was among the first to raise the alarm over Russia’s hacks of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), alerting their US counterparts in autumn of 2015, according to US intelligence officials.

US officials who helped prepare the classified government report on Russian hacking believe British intelligence was among the first to raise the alarm in autumn of 2015, The New York Times reported, citing two people familiar with the report’s conclusions.

The first signs likely came from voice intercepts, computer traffic or agents based outside the United States that picked up on DNC emails and other data being transferred out of the country, the paper said.

“The British picked it up, and we may have had it at about the same time,” one cyber expert, who attended briefings on the report’s findings, told the Times.

British intelligence – and particularly its surveillance arm, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) – plays a key role in tackling Russian cyber threats. When hackers linked to the Russian state threatened to disrupt British government agencies and even TV broadcasters ahead of the 2015 UK general election they were thwarted by the GCHQ.

British officials “were as alarmed as their US counterparts over the extent of contacts between Trump advisers and Moscow and by Trump’s consistently pro-Russian stance on a range of foreign policy issues”, The Guardian reported.

But those officials have now been put in a difficult position as Prime Minister Theresa May seeks to strengthen ties with the incoming US administration, likely in an attempt to offset Britain’s increasing international isolation in the wake of the Brexit vote.

In an interview with Sky News on Sunday, May said that she had spoken to Trump and that the "special" relationship between the United States and Great Britain supercedes the personal affinities of any two leaders. May and Trump are scheduled to meet in person sometime in the spring after the latter takes office.

In November the UK passed the Investigatory Powers Act, which vastly expanded Brtiain's surveillance capabilities, much to the dismay of privacy advocates. The law will allow security agencies to hack a personal computer or mobile phone to gather data even if the owner is not suspected of wrongdoing if it is justifiable in the "interests of national security or of the economic well-being of the United Kingdom". The new law also requires internet providers to keep a record of each website its customers have visited for a year and to surrender browsing histories to the government if requested.

Bungled response

A declassified report on cyber intrusions at the Democratic National Committee released on Friday revealed that Russian intelligence first gained access to DNC networks in July 2015. But it was not until September of that year that the FBI alerted the DNC to the breach.

Even after a special agent from the FBI contacted the DNC multiple times over several weeks to tell Democrats they had been hacked, the committee was slow to respond – the government contractor who received the FBI calls later revealed that he thought the calls might have been a prank.

US media reported this week that the FBI has yet to request access to DNC computer servers as part of its investigation into the Russian hacks.

“The DNC had several meetings with representatives of the FBI’s Cyber Division and its Washington (DC) Field Office, the Department of Justice’s National Security Division, and U.S. Attorney’s Offices, and it responded to a variety of requests for cooperation, but the FBI never requested access to the DNC’s computer servers,” wrote Eric Walker, the DNC’s deputy communications director, in an email to BuzzFeed News. The FBI has instead relied on the private cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike to conduct computer forensics, a US intelligence official said.

The declassified report – jointly released by the CIA, the NSA and the FBI on Friday – said Russian hackers maintained their access to the DNC network from July 2015 “until at least June 2016”.

The intelligence agencies were unequivocal in their assessment that the hacking orders came from the top: “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election.”

Moreover, they said Russia's actions were clearly designed to boost Trump's chances while undermining Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

“Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him. All three agencies agree with this judgment,” the report said.

Russia was also able to hack Republican networks, but chose not to release much of the information it had gathered.

“Russia collected on some Republican-affiliated targets but did not conduct a comparable disclosure campaign,” the report said.

Date created : 2017-01-08

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