In a brief and largely overlooked exchange between Sen. Marco Rubio and America's top spy during a January hearing about Russia's alleged election meddling, the Florida Republican sketched out what he fears could be the next front in the hidden wars of cyberspace.
Could Russian hackers, Rubio asked then-Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr., hypothetically gain access to a U.S. lawmaker's computer, plant criminal evidence on the device of, say, child pornography or money laundering and then tip off law enforcement?
"It is certainly well within both their technical competence and their potential intent to do something like that," Clapper told the Senate Intelligence Committee days before stepping down in January. "I think the next trend in the cyber business will be the compromise with the fidelity of information."
‘Weaponization’ of data
The question of how Russia and other adversaries might use cybertools in the future to meddle in American politics is, of course, overshadowed for now by what U.S. intelligence agencies say was Moscow's elaborate campaign to interfere in the 2016 presidential race.
Emails reportedly stolen by Russian hackers from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman, John Podesta, were later released to the public — something U.S. intelligence officials call the "weaponization" of data — in an effort to sow discord, discredit Clinton and, ultimately, help Donald Trump win.
Now, five months after Trump's electoral triumph, Russia's alleged interference is the focus of investigations by the FBI as well as the House and Senate Intelligence committees. All three probes are also looking into possible collusion between Moscow and the Trump campaign. Counterintelligence investigations are notoriously long and painstaking affairs, and officials have declined to provide a timeline for them to conclude.
2018 and 2020 could be a repeat
Even as investigators race to determine what exactly transpired during the 2016 presidential race, senior officials are warning that Russian meddling is not just a thing of the past. FBI Director James B. Comey said in sworn testimony last month that the Kremlin is likely to try to interfere in the 2018 midterm elections as well as the 2020 presidential race.
If the scale, scope and ambition of Moscow's 2016 cyber campaign long eluded U.S. officials, it has hit home as the investigations have pulled together the various threads of the operation.
It has also spurred officials to think about what future Russian efforts might look like. One concern is that adversaries could seek to manipulate vote counts — a scenario the Obama administration feared in the 2016 vote but one that ultimately did not come to pass.
'They can put things on your computer’
But another potential form of cyber mischief has increasingly caught the eye of members of the congressional intelligence committees: instead of stealing information, Russia could plant fake information to tarnish a public figure.
"Not only can they take things off your computer, they can put things on your computer that will compromise you," Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent, said at a hearing last month on Russian cyber operations. "I think that should send a shudder through all Americans that this isn't only taking — you can be very careful in your emails but something can show up on your computer that's fake and you could be in a lot of trouble."
It is a technique the Russians have used against critics at home and in Europe, experts say.
The curious case of Vladimir Bukovsky
Russian dissident Vladimir Bukovsky claims he was the target of just such methods. British police searched Bukovsky's home in Cambridge after receiving a tip about illegal materials — child pornography — and confiscated his computers. Bukovsky has said he is the victim of a smear campaign involving data planted on his devices by a third party, in this case Russia.
Prosecutors say he downloaded the illegal images over a 15-year period. The trial began in December but was postponed after Bukovsky was hospitalized.
The Bukovsky case, as well as similar incidents elsewhere in Europe, have generated concerns in the United States about Russia employing similar tactics here to go after public officials.
The use of compromising information — real or contrived — to discredit an adversary is an age-old trick in the world of espionage. The Soviet KGB was particularly adept at it.
"Doing those sorts of activities to ruin, for example, a politician or a diplomat's reputation with fake or true but misleading information, those are long-standing techniques," said Christopher Porter, a former CIA official now with the cybersecurity company FireEye. "There's nothing new about that."
From far away, with minimal risk
What is new, Porter said, is that cybertools give countries the ability to carry out such operations from far away, with minimal risk and at scale.
In other words, modern technology has made it much easier to conduct such operations now than in the past, when intelligence agencies needed a large team, sometimes spread across several countries, to successfully compromise a public figure. Now, all it takes is a small group of cyberwarriors working on computers in an office from the safety of their homeland.
A global threat
Their reach, meanwhile, extends to nearly any computer across the globe.
"Even if you live in your capital and even if the country you live in has a skilled police force and good intelligence services, they can't necessarily protect you as an individual from that adversary cyberthreat group going after you," Porter said.
The U.S. government isn't going to help, either, Porter said, noting that only things defined as critical infrastructure, such as the power grid, gets federal protection.
"So individuals, even if they're politically important, their personal accounts aren't defended in the same way that their government accounts are," he said.
The past few years have provided ample evidence that private accounts are susceptible to being hacked. In 2015, CIA Director John O. Brennan's personal email account was hacked. And then, of course, there's also Podesta's Gmail account.
Insider says forensics will expose hacking
In the case of compromising evidence on a public official's computer, some say the fears expressed by Rubio and others are legitimate but perhaps overblown.
One former senior U.S. official said that if a prominent official is ensnared in a scenario like the one spelled out by Rubio, U.S. law enforcement would conduct a rigorous forensic examination to ensure the veracity of the allegations.
The evidence, in such an instance, "would be endlessly scrutinized," particularly since the idea of a third party planting evidence on a device is now frequently brought up in cases involving compromising digital data, the former U.S. official said on condition of anonymity.
But the official pointed to a potential ripple effect of such fears about Russia's cyber reach: the potential chilling of free speech and people's willingness to stake out strong positions against Russia.
"They're worried because they're hawks that they're going to get targeted," the former official said.
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