The Computer Corner

REG COMPUTERS

By Charles Miller

 

Election Hacking Probe Reveals Depths of US Domestic Surveillance

Some people reading this might think I have too much time on my hands, but let me assure readers this is not the case.

Soon after the US Justice Department handed down an indictment of some folks named Boris, Ivan, Aleksey, Dmitriy, Sergey, Nikolay, Anatoliy, and others, the tech-oriented news forums I follow all started buzzing. Tech people around the world were all saying “You have to read this!”

I do not normally have time to read boring pages of legalese, but still I went to the official Justice Department website at www.justice.gov and downloaded Document Number 1080281. I then spent several hours reading and rereading 29 incredible pages.

The indictment of 12 Russian operatives for alleged meddling in the US presidential election is a serious matter; politically, it is for discussion elsewhere. My reason for rereading 29 pages with avid interest is the depth of technical details of the computer hacking revealed in the indictment. Most past court documents refer to unauthorized access or hacking in vague and even inaccurate terms. Not this time! The specificity with which the hacking is spelled out in this indictment is stunning, and for any tech person, it’s absolutely enthralling.

After my third rereading of the document, it was clear that US investigators probably did not have the Russians under surveillance two years ago but rather had painstakingly reconstructed their online activities from records of everyone’s online activities. Now I believe we have a better picture of the scope and depth of the data the NSA sucks into that humongous data center in Iowa. It is vacuuming up every bit of data transiting the Internet and storing it.

By mining this massive database, US investigators found records such as between 4:19 and 4:56pm, Unit 74455 of the GRU at 22 Kirova Street in Moscow searched online for certain words and phrases, checking their grammar, and then posted on a blog site using the same English words and phrases. The conspirators used Bitcoin to purchase VPN accounts in Malaysia and elsewhere. Investigators found the same computer that sent phishing emails to the DNC also used Bitcoin to pay for those VPN accounts. Obviously, the Russians believed Bitcoin to be anonymous, which it is certainly not.

For any government to have the technical ability to perform this type of forensic investigation retrospectively has to be troubling to civil libertarians. This also suggests there is a level of surveillance of everyone’s online activities far more invasive than revealed by Edward Snowden five years ago.

The question is asked: why would the US bother indicting a dozen Russian agents who will obviously never be tried? Perhaps all the detail in the indictment is just a warning shot across the bow of anybody else anywhere on the Internet who might be up to no good: behave yourselves, because it is all being recorded.

Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant, a frequent visitor to San Miguel since 1981, and now practically a full-time resident. He may be contacted at 044 415 101 8528 or email FAQ8 (at) SMAguru.com.

 

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