An unexpected country has kept appearing throughout the 2016 election, in the news and elsewhere. Russia has been a surprising player in the 2016 election, although officially, of course, Russia has denied everything. According to Russia, it’s just malcontents that happen to be within its borders, which nobody genuinely believes. Why is Russia starting a cold war online, and what does it mean for us?
State-sponsored hacking is hardly a new phenomenon. The FBI has added several Chinese military personnel to its most wanted list over suspicions of breaching United States computer systems. Iran has been accused of attacking American banks. And the American intelligence community itself is hardly innocent, as Edward Snowden’s leaks have made abundantly clear.
These hacking attacks are, in the end, simply a different way to perform basic spycraft. Instead of reading an ambassador’s letters, they now read his emails. It may be of questionable legality, but for many in governments around the world, it’s just one of the many problems they have to deal with to serve their country. What’s brought Russia under the microscope is how its hacks are used.
The DNC email hack was unprecedented because it was believed Russia, however clumsily, was attempting to influence the 2016 election. The FBI has warned of state-sponsored groups attempting to breach voter databases and election boards in the U.S. It’s even attempted to breach U.S. news organizations like The New York Times and CNN, although the motive behind these attempts isn’t clear.
And, worryingly, Russia has been exceptionally hostile towards former Soviet states. In 2007, Estonia, an independent country, removed a statue and had its entire online presence shut down for several days, little more than a juvenile prank. By 2015, it attempted to take down a Ukrainian power grid. And no website is safe, as Russia will pay trolls to endlessly promote whatever viewpoint it wants out there in comments sections and blogs.
How can Russia do this, flagrantly and publicly? In the end, it’s simple: Everybody knows Russia is sponsoring the hackers behind it, but nobody can prove it definitively.