BOSTON – The same Russian military intelligence outfit that hacked the Democrats in 2016 has renewed vigorous U.S. election-related targeting, trying to breach computers at more than 200 organizations including political campaigns and their consultants, Microsoft said Thursday.
The intrusion attempts reflect a stepped up effort to infiltrate the U.S. political establishment, the company said. “What we’ve seen is consistent with previous attack patterns that not only target candidates and campaign staffers but also those who they consult on key issues,” Tom Burt, a Microsoft vice president, said in a blog post. U.K. and European political groups were also probed, he added.
Most of the hacking attempts by Russian, Chinese and Iranian agents were halted by Microsoft security software and the targets notified, he said. The company would not comment on who may have been successfully hacked or the impact.
Although U.S. intelligence officials said last month that the Russians favor President Donald Trump and the Chinese prefer his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, Microsoft noted Thursday that Chinese state-backed hackers have targeted “high profile individuals associated with the election,” including people associated with the Biden campaign.
China's hackers largely gather intelligence for economic and political advantage, while Russia tends to weaponize stolen data to destabilize other governments.
Microsoft did not assess which foreign adversary poses the greater threat to the integrity of the November presidential election. The consensus among cybersecurity experts is that Russian interference is the gravest. Senior Trump administration officials have disputed that, although without offering any evidence.
“This is the actor from 2016, potentially conducting business as usual,” said John Hultquist, director of intelligence analysis at the cybersecurity firm FireEye. “We believe that Russian military intelligence continues to pose the greatest threat to the democratic process.”
The Microsoft post shows that Russian military intelligence continues to pursue election-related targets undeterred by U.S indictments, sanctions and other countermeasures, Hultquist said. It interfered in the 2016 campaign seeking to benefit the Trump campaign by hacking the Democratic National Committee and emails of John Podesta, the campaign manager of Hillary Clinton, and dumping embarrassing material online, congressional and FBI investigators have found.