The U.S. military is developing tools for hacking the data of Russian elites, in a bid to prevent interference in the presidential election.
2020 brings another presidential election, and this year it seems the United States has learned its lessons from 2016. In the face of potential interference from Russia, the U.S. Cyber Command is honing its cyber-warfare capabilities. As reported by The Washington Post, it’s developing technology that could breach the data of Russian elites.
According to current and former U.S. officials, Cyber Command is developing the methods mostly as a threat. By making a credible showing that sensitive personal information could be leaked, the DOD command unit is warning Russia against any cyber-interference in November’s election.
2019 witnessed a noticeable escalation in cyber-warfare between the U.S. and its rivals. But with the approach of the presidential election, it’s likely that 2020 will witness another step-change in intensity.
For instance, the United States spent last June hacking Russia’s electric power grid (without detailing how exactly). As with its preparations for November’s vote, the U.S. Cyber Command intended the attack mostly as a warning. Because around the same time, Russia’s Triton unit was scanning a variety of American power grids for vulnerabilities.
Given this attempted infiltration of U.S. infrastructure, the Department of Defense felt it had little choice but to respond in kind. Its actions haven’t really deterred Russia, but rather goaded it into upping its game.
In September, Check Point reported on significant cyber-espionage investment by Russia. The security firm noted that Russia had “invested a significant amount of money” in building “large-scale espionage capabilities”. Worse still, it suggested that Russia was preparing for a big attack:
Given the timing, the unique operational security design, and sheer volume of resource investment seen, Check Point believes we may see such an attack carried out near the 2020 US Elections.
Check Point’s study also concludes that Russia has built up its cyber-warfare capabilities to ensure resilience. Even if the U.S. tries to block Russian attacks, these may be “almost impossible” to defend against.
The sheer scale of Russian investment in its cyber-warfare machine implies that a cyber Cold War is all but inevitable.
In fact, Russia already seems to believe that it’s engaged in cyber war with Washington. In June, when the U.S. attacked Russian infrastructure, the Kremlin admitted just as much.
Commenting publicly on the attacks, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said:
Undoubtedly this information shows the hypothetical possibility… and all signs of cyber war and military cyber action against the Russian Federation.
It’s not clear that the U.S. government holds a similar view. That said, if Russia succumbs to the temptation to interfere in the U.S. presidential election, the U.S. Cyber Command’s threat of cyber-attack may be honored.
It’s easy to see how things could escalate from here. It’s also easy to see how things could develop into something like a worldwide cyber war. For example, China has also been developing its cyber-warfare capabilities in recent years. The same can be said for North Korean and Iran, which now has an added impetus to increase its efforts, following the Trump-ordered killing of General Qasem Soleimani.
The U.S. could end up fighting a cyber war on numerous fronts. According to military and cyber-security experts, this is something it wants to avoid. In June, Navy Secretary Thomas Modly told CQ Roll Call that the U.S. is seriously unprepared for a cyber war:
Our vulnerabilities may make it so debilitating for us that we may not be able to get off the pier in San Diego if we had a major conflict. This is not just a Navy problem. This is a national problem.
So one can hope that these new attempts to deter interference in the 2020 U.S. presidential election work. If they don’t, the world could become a little bit more unstable.