State-sponsored hacking is back in the news, this time courtesy of accusations that Russia’s cyber maneuvers influenced the 2016 US election through the notorious DNC email leaks and a cyberattack against the Clinton campaign. Trump has repeatedly denied that Russian interference was a factor, to the point of loudly rejecting the CIA’s claims. He also wondered, on Twitter, where these claims were before the election (they were mentioned in the second Presidential debate and he publicly asked Russia to hack Clinton).
Additionally, Trump has stated that it’s impossible to figure out which flags hackers fly unless you catch them in the act, but the exact opposite is true. If you know what to look for and where to look, it’s very easy to guess who a hacker is working for. Proving it, though, is another matter.
This isn’t a new phenomenon: Currently, several Chinese generals (including well-known hacker/instant internet meme Wang Dong) on the FBI’s Most Wanted list for that crime, North Korea attacked Sony over its movie The Interview, and the United States government got in hot water itself for doing just that with PRISM. But how do we know the difference between state-sponsored hacking and kids screwing around?
Can You Spot A State-Sponsored Attack?
The short answer is, there’s rarely a smoking gun. In theory, most hacking that happens to convenience one state while hurting another is the result of people at the keyboard independently deciding to execute complex mathematical attacks on infrastructural targets that can take months and millions of dollars to pull off. To give you an idea of just how much spies cling to this idea, China didn’t admit it had state-employed hackers until last year, despite those aforementioned generals being on the FBI’s list since 2014
Still, for intelligence agencies and even the man on the street, spotting a state-sponsored hack is fairly easy in a number of ways. Sometimes, the identities of the culprits can be glaringly obvious, with the Sony data dump being a prime example. The Interview, you may remember, was a comedy from Seth Rogen and James Franco about a frivolous Andy-Cohen-esque chat show host scoring an interview with Kim Jong-Un, and promptly recruited by the CIA in an attempt to assassinate him.
In response, supposedly some patriots from North Korea stole all of Sony’s emails and dumped them on the internet. North Korea is a country that can’t even provide its citizens with food, let alone modern computers, so the idea that the hack was anything other than a government action is patently ridiculous. Granted, Sony can’t prove this legally, but unless a shocking revelation arrives at some point, common sense tells us who did it and why.