Microsoft Says It Discovered — And Stopped — Attempted Cyberattack Tied To Russia

Aug 21, 2018
Originally published on August 21, 2018 9:50 pm
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

We're learning more today about ongoing cyberattacks against political targets in the United States. Microsoft says it discovered and disrupted a scheme that's connected to the Russian government. NPR political reporter Tim Mak is on this story and joins us now. Welcome.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey. Thank you.

CHANG: So can you just start us off by telling us about who the targets of this plot were? And how was this plot supposed to work?

MAK: So there's this Russian hacking group. And it goes by a variety of names but most commonly Fancy Bear. So what they tried to do...

CHANG: That's very sweet.

MAK: What they tried to do in this case was create domains and URLs that looked like the groups they were trying to target for cyberattacks. So here's how it would work. And it could happen to any of us. You'd receive an email that has a URL. It directs you to a website that looks a lot like your own office's website. And it asks for your passwords. This happens all the time. But in this case, it happens - it happened with these attempted targets - the U.S. Senate and two right-of-center think tanks, the International Republican Institute and the Hudson Institute.

CHANG: OK. And you talked with some of these organizations today and members of Congress. What have they been telling you about this attempted attack?

MAK: Well I think there's really a sense from Republicans, especially the more hawkish ones, that they need to take more action on Russia. Here's Senator Lindsey Graham today in a Senate hearing.

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LINDSEY GRAHAM: America is under cyberattack. We're beginning to act but not quick enough and not forcefully enough.

MAK: So the U.S. has implemented new sanctions on Russia since 2016. And they've targeted new Kremlin-linked individuals for these sanctions. But it really does seem from the latest attempted attacks that the Russian government hasn't gotten the message.

CHANG: And as you mentioned the targets in this case were think tanks. They were members of the U.S. Senate or staff of the U.S. Senate. What does the nature of these targets suggest about the intentions behind these cyberattacks?

MAK: Right. So this is a continuation of a long game that the Kremlin has been playing, which is targeting critics of Vladimir Putin. The conservative think tanks in this case have been opponents of Putin. The International Republican Institute, for example, is chaired by Senator John McCain. He's a big Russia hawk. And it's got six GOP senators on their board. The Hudson Institute is a - has a kleptocracy initiative. They promote democracy, and they track corruption in Russia. So it really does seem like an effort by Russia to infiltrate the cyber systems of some of their opponents. That's a big contrast from the information warfare that we see on social media, where they're more about trying to generate chaos.

CHANG: So should we be expecting many more cyberattacks going forward this year?

MAK: You know, it's really interesting - this doesn't happen in isolation. So two weeks ago, we saw that Facebook announced it had shut down more than 30 accounts linked to that Russian troll farm in St. Petersburg, you know, the Internet Research Agency. And overnight, we had this announcement from Microsoft. I spoke to Senator Mark Warner today. He's the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee. And he hinted there was more to come. Here he is right now.

MARK WARNER: The government has upped its game. Tech companies are upping their game. But I wouldn't be surprised if we see more.

MAK: So that from him I feel is a hint of what tech companies are going to do down the line - that it's not just Microsoft. It's not just Facebook - that there's more to come. So it certainly looks - the next few months will feature more announcements by various tech companies. And what's the bottom line here? The bottom line is that the - Trump administration officials, intelligence officials, think tanks, senators on both side of the aisle - they all say that Russia interfered in our elections back in 2016, and they continue to do so with an eye for the 2018 midterms, the 2020 elections and beyond.

CHANG: It's not going to end. That's NPR reporter Tim Mak. Thank you.

MAK: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.