When this story blew up in the fall of 2016, I turned to my server log files and noted my WordPress blogs of no importance were receiving hack attempts every day from locations all over the world. There were hack attempts from Russia. And Poland, Canada, China, Taiwan, Israel, Turkey and a large number from the United States.
Any of the hack attempts could have been relayed via proxy servers, VPNs or onion routing hiding their real location. A hack from Russia might really be from Canada but might have been routed through a server in Russia to make it look like it was from Russia.
Hackers, including the U.S. government’s NSA, use techniques to make it look like their own source code was written in Russia, China, North Korea or elsewhere, by incorporating local language and pieces of known attack software into their own code.
Attributing the source of an attack is, unfortunately, not always a reliable art as there are many standard ways to hide one’s location in the world and obfuscate one’s fingerprints.
[Note – I have a degree in computer science and one of my graduate degrees is in software engineering.]
Hackers may be seeking access to private data, or to install their own ad/malware distribution systems on servers, or to install botnets, or to insert web links to influence search engine result placement – and on and on.
Some of the hacks could have originated from governments or from “script kiddies” (usually young people who download and run hacking tools) or criminal operations. The linked AP article argues that it takes teams of people, able to speak multiple languages, to interpret collected data, suggesting these hacks must be from government agencies. Apparently they have not heard of crowd-sourced projects that have contributors all over the world – hackers do this too.
The point is: hacking is way, way, way more widespread than most realize. Similarly, propaganda operations are way, way, way more widespread.
Propaganda and fake news, whether it originates in Russia or originates from U.S. based organizations is doing what propaganda does – it is attempting to manipulate you to adopt someone’s agenda.
Social media has expanded the opportunity for propaganda. Once upon a time, propagandists needed to own or rent printing presses and broadcast licenses. Today the barriers to entry are non-existent – just create a free account on Twitter and Facebook and you are in business!
(My own assumption is there are both non-state and state actors in Russia involved. And in China. And in the United States. And in many other countries around the world. They are all involved in various activities including direct hacking and infiltration, fake news and propaganda operations and much more. If we focus exclusively on Russia, we are leaving ourselves vulnerable to other information campaigns. The U.S. government itself may be spinning a Russian-hacking story, exaggerating the evidence and conclusions. We have no way of knowing what is true or false in this matter.)