Why Russian hackers, not a lone wolf, were likely behind the US Democrat breach

A lone hacker named Guccifer 2.0 has tried to take credit

Proving who pulled off a cyber attack is never easy and sometimes impossible. That’s the reality investigators face as they try to figure out who breached the network of the Democratic National Committee, which revealed last week that hackers had made off with confidential documents including research on Republican presidential opponent Donald Trump.

Russia was fingered as the likely suspect, until a hacker calling himself Guccifer 2.0 stepped up and claimed that he acted alone. But despite what appear to be DNC documents posted by Guccifer online, some security experts remain convinced that a group of skilled Russian hackers was behind the attack - likely acting on behalf of the Russian government. Here's why they think that:

The malware

The breach began as far back as last summer and involved malware previously used by two hacking groups known as Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear.

Both are thought to be based in Russia and considered among the best hacking teams in the world, said Michael Buratowski, a senior vice president with Fidelis Cybersecurity, which was called in to examine the malware in the DNC attack.

Not just anyone could have pulled off the attack, he said. For instance, the malware used to breach the DNC networks is relatively rare and highly developed.

A hacker would need significant expertise to properly customize and deploy the code, something no amateur “script kiddie” would possess, he said.

A growing pattern

Another big reason for suspecting Russian hackers is the target itself and what was stolen -- the attackers wanted information related to political campaigns and foreign policy plans. Cybercriminals are typically more interested in financial data such as credit card numbers, noted Ben Johnson, chief security strategist for Carbon Black.

This fits with the pattern of Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear, whose past victims include the White House and the U.S. State Department, in addition to businesses in defense, energy and aerospace. Email systems of top U.S. officials have also been among their targets.

“It seems like the attackers knew what they were after,” Johnson said. “They also didn’t kick up a lot of dust.”

Although the initial breach began last summer, the DNC became aware of it only in late April. This suggests the hackers were probably experts and had done that type of hack before.

“Attribution is incredibly difficult,” Johnson said. “But from what we’ve seen, it’s most likely that a sophisticated group is responsible.”

Russia

It's difficult to definitively link a hacker group to a government, but security firms have made a connection to Russia by examining attack patterns over a long period of time, said Mark Arena, CEO of security firm Intel 471.

For example, past attacks by Fancy Bear show consistent use of the Russian language in developing its malware. Their targets have included NATO and Eastern European governments, with a focus on stealing political and military data, as opposed to intellectual property -- more typically a target of Chinese hackers.

Targeting the DNC could obviously align with Russia's goals, as one of the U.S.'s biggest geopolitical opponents.

Russian officials have flatly denied any involvement, but that doesn't tell us much one way or the other.

The timing

A lone hacker, Guccifer 2.0, has sought to take credit for the DNC hack, claiming it was "easy, very easy," and leaking several documents to back up his claim. Some media reports say the hacker is Romanian and dislikes Russians.

Not everyone believes the claims. On Tuesday, the DNC itself said the leaked files may be “part of a disinformation campaign by the Russians.”

In Guccifer 2.0's first post, the hacker mocked CrowdStrike, the security firm that claimed Russians were behind the breach, and denounced unspecified "illuminati" and their “conspiracies.”

“Together we’ll be able to throw off the political elite, the rich clans that exploit the world!” the hacker wrote in another posting.

Johnson sees the timing of Guccifer's appearance as too convenient.

“It’s a very timely cover-up,” he said. “It seems a little too staged.”

Buratowski agreed. He noted that Guccifer 2.0 could be one person or multiple people belonging to a larger group. Metadata found within the leaked DNC documents included snippets of Russian.

“There’s always the possibility that [Guccifer 2.0] is just a smokescreen to divert attention from the real actors,”Buratowski said.

Join the PC World newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Michael Kan

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Cool Tech

Crucial Ballistix Elite 32GB Kit (4 x 8GB) DDR4-3000 UDIMM

Learn more >

Gadgets & Things

Lexar® Professional 1000x microSDHC™/microSDXC™ UHS-II cards

Learn more >

Family Friendly

Lexar® JumpDrive® S57 USB 3.0 flash drive 

Learn more >

Stocking Stuffer

Plox Star Wars Death Star Levitating Bluetooth Speaker

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles

Resources

GGG Evaluation Team

Kathy Cassidy

STYLISTIC Q702

First impression on unpacking the Q702 test unit was the solid feel and clean, minimalist styling.

Anthony Grifoni

STYLISTIC Q572

For work use, Microsoft Word and Excel programs pre-installed on the device are adequate for preparing short documents.

Steph Mundell

LIFEBOOK UH574

The Fujitsu LifeBook UH574 allowed for great mobility without being obnoxiously heavy or clunky. Its twelve hours of battery life did not disappoint.

Andrew Mitsi

STYLISTIC Q702

The screen was particularly good. It is bright and visible from most angles, however heat is an issue, particularly around the Windows button on the front, and on the back where the battery housing is located.

Simon Harriott

STYLISTIC Q702

My first impression after unboxing the Q702 is that it is a nice looking unit. Styling is somewhat minimalist but very effective. The tablet part, once detached, has a nice weight, and no buttons or switches are located in awkward or intrusive positions.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?