Is State-sponsored Hacking Here to Stay?

Ray Walsh

Ray Walsh

January 18, 2017

A Russian security chief is claiming that there has been a huge spike in attacks directed at Russia. The surge has taken place since the claims that the Kremlin hacked the US. The claim comes from Nikolai Patrushev, the head of Russia’s Security Council. In a statement released yesterday via the Russian newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta, he said,

“Obama’s administration accuses Russia of hacking attacks without giving any proof, but deliberately ignores the fact that all major internet servers are located on US territory and are used by Washington for intelligence and other purposes aimed at retaining [US] dominance in the world.”

Patrushev insists that US allegations have led to a surge in cyber-warfare and espionage attacks directed at Russia. According to Patrushev, Moscow has noticed, “a growing number of attempts to inflict damage to Russian information systems from abroad.” In addition, he claims those attacks are of an equally invasive nature as those that occurred in the US.

The chief of Russian security says the attacks include attempts to carry out, “unsanctioned collection of personal data.” In his statements made for the Russian newspaper, Patrushev mentions an evolving attack vector that changes constantly. Those attacks, he says, show high levels of technical prowess. They involve the use of international internet providers and well-implemented obfuscation methods.

International Rules and Guidelines

According to the Russian security chief, he and his colleagues are working towards creating a set of common cyber-practice rules for the international community. He claims that Russia is interested in setting up a system whereby all nations can stick to certain online codes of conduct. Despite the bold claim, the reality is that this is just more political rhetoric.

Tor browser obfuscation

“You Did It!”

These days, it is possible for elite hackers to use VPN into Tor to disguise the IP address from which they launch cyberattacks. Using a VPN alone leaves attackers vulnerable to deep packet inspection. As such, despite the fact that VPNs do provide incredibly high levels of privacy and security, if a high profile intelligence agency (like the NSA) decides to specifically target someone, it is possible for them (with enough time and effort) to discover an IP address.

Tor, on the other hand, is trickier for the authorities to track. With Tor it is much harder to discover an IP address, unless people tip off the authorities about a specific mistake (as in the Playpen case). What this means is that if a skilled hacker uses VPN into Tor to double obfuscate their location, it is very hard for anybody to know where that attack really came from. As such, a hacker like Guccifer 2.0 (who purposefully left clues that implied he was Russian), could actually be sat in a bedroom in New York, London, or North Korea.

finger pointing

Attribution Is the Problem

This knowledge makes it very hard to believe claims that attribute attacks to any particular party. Skilled hackers clearly find it insanely easy to frame others for their actions. With that in mind, Trump is absolutely right to call into question the validity of the Obama administration’s allegations that the Kremlin perpetrated the DNC hack.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying that Russia never hacks anyone – the opposite is more likely the truth. In fact, if you take into consideration the high levels of US snooping brought to light by the Snowden revelations, Russia would probably have to be mad not to be engaging in all-out cyber-espionage against the US. However, while we all know that this is the reality, proving it remains largely impossible.

Russian Villainization

The US regularly conducts acts of cyber warfare that it admits to. It also carries out many more in secret. However, many villainize Russia for things it didn’t definitely do. Wikileaks’ Julian Assange has clearly stated that Russia was not involved in the Clinton and Podesta email leaks. Assange, it would appear, has no reason to lie about his source, so what gives? And why the convenient Trump u-turn? Trump now says Russia didn’t do it. However, he may have negatively affected US perceptions during the election campaign. When talking about the missing Clinton emails, he pleaded: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.”

At the same time, one can’t help thinking back to 2011. Then, Russia alleged that the US used propaganda to influence protests and rioting following Putin’s election win. At that time, Putin commented that,

“Hundreds of millions of dollars in ‘foreign money’ was being used to influence Russian politics, and that Mrs. Clinton [then secretary of state] had personally spurred protesters to action.”

Add that to US claims (made last November) about breaking into, “Kremlin servers as well as into the commanding systems of some Russian energy supply and telecommunication systems… to use its “cyber-weapon” against Russia in case of a major hacking attack against the US,” and you have quite the boiling pot of US hypocrisy.

digital footprints

Digital Footprints

Let’s look at the cases of the US DNC, Clinton, and Podesta hacks. We know that some of the digital footprints used to ascertain Russian involvement were from an outdated Ukrainian hacking tool. It is also common knowledge that hackers can hide their true location. With such flimsy evidence, it is very hard to believe the US when it says it “knows” who was responsible.

Hackers with poor skills may well leave clues behind that make it possible to catch them. However, elite hackers working for state-sponsored intelligence agencies are unlikely to fall into this category.

Hard to Believe

Many people acknowledge these capabilities. In addition, the value of hacking was made incredibly obvious during the recent US elections. Thus, it seems unlikely that either country would ever actually follow any amicable “common rules.” After all, the US is willing to hack its own people, by using secret projects like PRISM. It therefore seems like a serious fantasy to think it won’t continue to hack both political and economic enemies. The same goes for Russia (and all other countries for that matter). Just look at Germany, for instance, whose intelligence agency Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) has hacked high-profile EU politicians. It even hacked the French president for the NSA.


Thousands of Hacks per Day

Russia’s head of security says that hackers are subjecting his nation to a constant barrage of attacks. In the current climate, this is no doubt true. According to him, Putin’s website, “is subjected to hacking attacks hundreds and sometimes even thousands of times a day.” He says those hacks come from a large variety of places, including the US, Europe, China, and India. However, Patrushev appears to be more politically savvy than his US counterparts – he admits that Russia cannot specifically blame Obama. Such allegations, he says, would be pure conjecture:

“It does not lead to a situation when we say that we know [US President Barack] Obama ordered [this attack] and the White House is behind it.”

Patrushev (like Trump) admits that it is hard to point fingers when it comes to hacking. However, that doesn’t mean he genuinely hopes to forge a system where nations stop spying on each other. With obfuscation methods available, espionage will continue.

Opinions are the writers own.


Ray Walsh

I am a freelance journalist and blogger from England. I am highly interested in politics and in particular the subject of IR. I am an advocate for freedom of speech, equality, and personal privacy. On a more personal level I like to stay active, love snowboarding, swimming and cycling, enjoy seafood, and love to listen to trap music.

3 responses to “Is State-sponsored Hacking Here to Stay?

  1. I’ve read your article and “Who Knows”. The sources are all subject to verification and that is almost (Maybe not totally) impossible. But, my opinion, something very “Strange” did occur during the last election cycle. Beyond that,I do not think anyone will ever know the truth.

  2. I manage servers (based in the US) for business clients and notice that we get many hack attempts daily from both Russia and USA IP addresses. As well, Ukraine, China and India are also major sources of hack attempts.

    The level of hacking attempts is rising steadily and I don’t see any other option than daily vigilance and the use of intrusion detection and prevention tools.

    In my case, I believe that these attacks are not necessarily state sponsored, rather criminals and freelancers are the culprits.

  3. The problem for us ordinary mortals is that we don’t have the knowledge or ability to protect ourselves against these sophisticated attacks, even if we are just caught in the crossfire. As governments demand more and more access it forces everyone towards the margins of the net. I have used a VPN for some time now and I’m sure that it has dramatically improved my security, but will my security in the end be compromised not so much by a direct attack on me, but being collateral damage in these high level hacking wars. Back in the day people had Kilo or Mega stream lines connecting their various sites together, is that a solution? Also why have security sensitive servers/computers connected to the net. If there is no physical connection, surely the hackers need to be physically in the building?

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