Hacking democracy? Wikileaks, Russian hackers and the US elections

In June 2016, dozens of documents were released and uploaded to the WikiLeaks website. Included in the upload were 19,252 emails and 8,034 attachments and all of them directly regarded or mentioned the Democratic National Committee (DNC), the formal governing body for the United States Democratic Party.

The emails contained information about personal issues, but also conversations between DNC members discussing the 2016 presidential race and the party’s main candidates to the presidential seat, Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

The impact of such revelations was the subject of the panel Hacking democracy? Wikileaks, Russian hackers, US elections whose speakers tried to explain the effects that hacking documents and mails from institutions can have on democracy and the media. Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai, Stefania Maurizi, Andrei Soldatov and moderator Carola Frediani discussed the complexity of revealing secrets with the help of hackers.

The topic was complicated: ‘this panel is gonna be dense,’ Frediani warned, and so it was. Their discussion touched upon the DNC leaks, moving to the effects they had on the presidential race, and also the individuals behind the leaking, ending on a discussion on possible links between Trump, members of his administration and Russia.

A leak with lots of connections

Franceschi-Bicchierai from Motherboard, who followed the leaks and the hack very closely, briefly summed up the timeline of the DNC story and explained how he managed to engage directly with the hacker claiming to have breached the servers of the committee.

“In July 2016 The Washinton Post [reported that] two groups of Russian hackers [had broken] into the DNC (…) they went undetected for a few months, stole all kind of documents and emails until they got caught. (…) Basically the story was: Russia was spying on the Democratic Party to try and find out what they thought about Donald Trump.”

The US company Crowdstrike was charged with investigating the offenders behind the leaks affirmed that it was a job connected to Russia, and that there were indeed two groups of hackers involved. The groups, nicknamed Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear, were believed to be the FSB and the GRU (Russia military intelligence).

But less than 24 hours later after the Crowdstrike statement, a Romanian hacker nicknamed Guccifer2 came forward to deny the statement made by the American investigators.To demonstrate that he was speaking the truth he proceeded to publish more documents, and Franceschi-Bicchierai got in touch to discuss the leak with him. However he didn’t believe the hacker due to inconsistencies in his technical answers regarding the job.

Furthermore another organization, DCLeaks, had come to be considered as a possible culprit and a connection was later demonstrated to exist between Guccifer and DCLeaks in the DNC hacking, in addition to the Podesta leaks published some months afterward. “We can conclude that they were part of the same operation,” concluded Franceschi- Bicchierai.

A leak with high impact

WikiLeaks would go on to publish all the information they had been able to access, and suddenly the tides changed in favor of the organization: people began to feel sympathetic towards it “because [until then] they thought that WikiLeaks was trying to help Clinton to win the presidential race.”

According to Maurizi “there were a lot of inconsistencies in all this story.” “It’s impossible that one day the NFSB, or GRU, operatives decide to hack the DNC and go ahead and do. You need to have political approval at the highest level,” she expressed sceptically.

Maurizi also agreed with Franceschi-Bicchierai on his analysis of Guccifer2’s level of involvelment in the leaks, and especially with his decision not to trust the hacker: “You have this Guccifer 2.0 going round talking to reporters using Google Translate, which is completelt mad because when you use [it] you expose yourself, you expose [the fact] you are not a native speaker.”

The reporter from La Repubblica has been working with Wikileaks for the last eight years, and has grown accostumed to the organization’s publishing methods: she is convinced that the group was indeed behind the DNC Leaks. “They did whatever they have done in the past, with all sorts of releases. They receive materials, they cross check materials, they publish when [it] has maximum impact.”

A campaign “against Wikileaks”

Soldatov, a Russian investigative journalist, explained that over the years the Cremlin had taken to outsorce experts, “informal actors’ who are not active members of the government. The decision to call external hackers was mostly influenced by a lower risk to involved agencies and due to their ability to take into account “your risk, and your costs,” when commissioned for an hacking job. However having hacktivists working in security systems is in itself a very high risk. And it’s something that Putin knows: in an interview with Bloomberg, the Russian president admitted that “hackers are so smart, they are difficult to trust.” Soldatov believes that this is a problem.

When the Panama Papers investigation was launched one year ago, Wikileaks had threathened to attack the team that had been covering the story because of the interest they had shown in focusing on tax havens. It was later discovered that some close friends of Putin had been involved in the scandal.