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From Colin Powell to Venus Williams, from the White House to the Democratic National Committee, Americans have been under attack from hackers who U.S. officials believe are tied to the Russian government. The Internet intrusions and data dumps have sowed embarrassment and alarm and raised questions about the safety of our national secrets and even our presidential election.
Here’s a look at what we know about the hacks, who is behind them and what might be coming next.
How worried is the NSA about the hacking?
A wide range of intelligence and law enforcement officials have told NBC News that the recent attacks and the threat of escalation are what keep them up at night, especially the question of what other systems might be penetrated.
Lisa Monaco, the top White House adviser on homeland security, said at a conference on Wednesday that the U.S. is responding to the Russian cyberattacks with the same framework it uses to combat terrorism.
And NSA chief Mike Rogers told Congress this week the hacking is “an issue of great focus” and that spy agencies are actively concerned that Russian might try to disrupt the presidential election.
What is Russia’s goal?
Does the Kremlin really want Tim Kaine’s personal cell number or Simone Biles’ blood tests? Foreign governments frequently hack their adversaries to gather valuable intelligence, but the boastful leaking of stolen information by the Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear hacker teams reveals there are other motives at play.
Experts say Moscow is wielding the hacks as a weapon — to get attention and respect on the world stage, to humiliate Washington, and to shake Americans’ confidence in their institutions.
"It shows the way Russia uses cyber as an instrument of national power and in ways that we don't expect to see here in the U.S.," said Toni Gidwani, a former U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency official who works for ThreatConnect, a cybersecurity firm that investigated the DNC hack.
Since the hackers have repeatedly targeted Democrats, some observers have suggested they are trying to help Donald Trump, but officials believe that those orchestrating the attacks are more interested in undermining trust in the entire electoral system.
What exactly are Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear?
These are the names that cybersecurity firms have given to two separate — and possibly competing — computer espionage groups based in Russia.
Fancy Bear, also known as APT 28, has been tied to most of the Russia hacks garnering headlines of late, including against the World Anti-Doping Agency and the Democratic Party. U.S. security officials say it has links to GRU, Russia’s foreign military intelligence agency
Cozy Bear, which is sometimes called APT 29, was blamed for the hacks of the White House, Joint Chiefs of Staff and State Department. It’s believed to be tied to the FSB, Russia’s internal security service. The Russians are believed to be using other groups like Anonymous Poland, Guccifer 2.0 and DCLeaks to make their plunder public, investigators say.
How do we know the Russian government is behind it?
A senior Justice Department official told NBC News that forensic investigation shows that Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear are not just hacker groups operating in the orbit of the Russian government but are actually operating as part of the government apparatus.
The Kremlin has firmly denied involvement, and for obvious reasons, American officials say they can’t release details of the evidence that would show Russia is lying.
It’s worth noting that previous foreign hacking cases show the U.S. can use forensics to track intrusions to named individuals and file criminal charges against them. Earlier this year, the FBI released mugshots of seven Iranian computer experts it accused of cyberattacks on American banks and a New York dam.
Why hasn’t the U.S. retaliated against Russia?
Washington hasn’t “named and shamed” the Russians like it has done in other foreign hacking cases. One reason, as NBC reported earlier this week, is that officials don’t want to tip off the Russians to U.S. sources and investigative methods.
Another is diplomatic: the U.S. wants Russian cooperation in Syria and is worried about driving a bigger wedge between the two countries by hitting back on the cyber front. President Obama also has indicated he has little desire to escalate the situation and spark a Cold War-style hacking “arms race.”
And senior federal law enforcement officials told NBC News on Wednesday that they need to gather a tremendous amount of specific information before officially pointing the finger.
At Wednesday’s conference, however, Monaco said the U.S. will crack down on its cyber-enemies when the time is right, and she suggested the model will be the same one used in Iran and China hacking episodes, which resulted in federal charges.
“Nobody should think there’s a free pass when you’re conducting malicious cyberactivity,” she said. “I think our reach is long,” she added. “Sometimes it takes a long time to build a case, but it doesn’t deter us from continuing to pursue it.”
How bad can it get?
Well, Vladimir Putin isn’t likely to get his hands on our nuclear codes if that’s what you’re worried about.
While the hackers have managed to break into the White House email, they only saw unclassified material. And it appears their focus has been on grabbing and posting data, and not secretly manipulating the information — so far.
For instance, they may have busted into voter registration databases in Illinois and Arizona, but there’s no evidence they have tried to change the outcome of an election.
And the U.S. has tried to make the security around more sensitive material impenetrable.
What the recent episodes show is that some of those firewalls clearly aren’t strong enough. Officials in Washington acknowledge that it’s a day-to-day struggle to stay ahead of the Russians and other foreign adversaries on a relentless hunt for chinks in American armor.
As one senior U.S. intelligence official told NBC News on Wednesday, the biggest concern is what Russia might be up to that Washington doesn’t know about.
“They have tremendous cybercapabilities and have demonstrated an ability — and an interest — in using them in a lot of different ways,’’ said the official. “They’ve been doing this stuff for a long time, and we should be very, very worried about the Russia’s capability in the cyber realm.”