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link to the published version: IEEE Computer, September, 2017

accesses since July 10, 2017

Russian Spearphishing and the 2016 US Presidential Election: Oh What a Tangled Web We Wove

Hal Berghel

What's the interesting part of the story behind the alleged Russian election hacking?

It seems that the Russian election interference story has taken on a life of its own. According to one recent report in the Intercept [COLE], Russian military intelligence launched a spear-phishing attack against at least one voting machine software supplier and more than one hundred local election officials. The Washington Post, such attacks were ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin to help elect Donald Trump. [MILLER1] Putin denies such involvements with pro forma political double speak – “We never engaged in that on a state level , and have no intention of doing so.” [AP-POLITICO] We call attention to the qualifier in the first clause, and tense in the second (italics added). According to the Intercept article, “The [NSA] assessment concluded with high confidence that the Kremlin ordered an extensive, multi-pronged propaganda effort “to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.” It's time for this story to be intelligently put to rest.

Did Russia engage in the spear-phishing attack and DNC Hack? I wouldn't put it past them. But all of the evidence has been classified by the U.S. intelligence agencies, so we really don't know for sure. I've spoken to the problem trying to establish cyber-attribution within a security vacuum before [BERG1], and this problem rears its ugly head again with this latest story. The Intercept claims to have a copy of this most recent NSA report, but at the request of the NSA they are not revealing it. The Intercept claims that the leaked NSA document states that “It is unknown whether the aforementioned spear-phishing deployment successfully compromised the intended victims, and what potential data could have been accessed by the cyber actor.” [COLE] (source document: ). The NSA claims that one target of the spear-phishing was a voting machine software developer who sells registration system software to hardware vendors of voting machines. Certainly this would be an important hack of voting systems – if voter's names are removed from voting registration records, they will lose their opportunity to vote. (Indeed this is exactly what has been done domestically for years by vote challengers, see below). The backdrop of this story is that based on earlier NSA reports, President Obama issued a series of warnings to President Putin to stop the cyber aggression against U.S. political infrastructure in September, 2016 – apparently without effect. [MILLER2] The Russian Hack incident pushed the Senate into passing legislation in July, 2017 that contained additional sanctions against Russia by a veto-proof vote of 92:2 [DEMIRJIAN] in defiance of President Trump's vacillating and inconsistent policy on Russia.

This entire story camouflages the real issues! The important parts of this story remain under-reported, namely (1) the Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election was far from noteworthy for the U.S. has continuously interfered in foreign elections for a century or more, (2) the effect of Russian interference with U.S. democratic elections pales in comparison to the effects of domestic efforts, and (3) these problems are exacerbated by the U.S.' absurd commitment to outdated and insecure voting policies, procedures and equipment. We take these up in turn.


That the U.S. is the world leader in global election interference is well-documented, [KILLHOPE] [WEINER] with Russia/former Soviet Union in a distant second place [LEVIN]. Political scientist Dov H. Levin's data show that of the 117 partisan electoral interventions identified between 1946 and 2000, 81 (69%) were conducted by the U.S. while the remaining were conducted by USSR/Russia. Since 937 competitive national elections took place during the same period, Levin's data show that 11.3% were targeted by one or both of these super powers for intervention. So one in nine foreign national elections over the past half century were a target of either U.S. or USSR Russian interference (or both). What is unique about our present circumstance is just that the super powers are apparently interfering with each other's elections. Levin's analysis excludes covert and military operations to overthrow governments which are featured in William Blum's book, Killing Hope. I will note in passing that Blum's book has been updated twice since 1995 to reflect the heavy volume of recent U.S. interference in foreign government affairs. Our present experience with election interference is not new. It's only that the shoes have changed feet.

So the recent reports of the DNC hack and Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election must be held in an objective, historical perspective. C That said, with the U.S. intelligence services hiding all relevant information under the protective banner of classified sources and methods (even though for the most part they aren't [BERG1]), the citizenry may never know any more about Russian interference than the controlling elite want to reveal or fabricate. The only intelligent conclusion that may be drawn at this point is if the Russians did this, we have only ourselves to blame.


There is a certain irony to Donald Trump's campaign rhetoric. If, as he claimed, the 2016 presidential election was rigged, the available evidence seems to suggest that it was rigged and in his favor. Notwithstanding possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians, if the current special prosecutor investigating possible Russian interference finds any Russian involvement, the consensus seems to be that it was to Trump's benefit. However, at this point we have no conclusive answers to any of the core questions.

However, we do have conclusive evidence of manipulations of the 2016 election – but the documented manipulation had domestic rather than foreign sources. I'll offer one special case: Maricopa County (Phoenix), AZ since it enjoys a special status of questionable voting practices for half a century. In fact, Chief Justice William Rehnquist was associated with voter suppression of minorities in that area in the early 1960 as a part of the Republican Party voter suppression program, Operation Eagle Eye. [WANG]

Much has been made of the eye witnesses to Rehnquist's participation in voter suppression activities in Arizona such as voter challenges and caging. Indeed, the FBI had created an extensive file on his activities, some of it was released and commented upon after his death in 2005 [TAYLOR][DEMOCRACYNOW][WANG]. But this shouldn't be the focus of intense debate on Rehnquist's legacy. In my opinion, too much has been made of his involvement in Eagle Eye, his defense of the separate but equal doctrine, his abuse of prescription drugs, and the like. The real attention should have been, and should be now, on his false testimony to the Senate during his two confirmation hearings. According to John Dean who worked with him in both the Justice Department and in his capacity as White House counselor to Richard Nixon, Rehnquist certainly lied and may have committed perjury. [DEAN] Given that judicial appointments in the U.S. are heavily partisan, media should be attentive to what it is that justices are willing to say and do to get elevated to the bench. Judicial vetting amounts to a training exercise in obfuscation.

While in retrospect the Rehnquist confirmation was a doubly bad choice from the point of view of integrity if not ideology, it pales in comparison to today's manipulation of elections. Whereas the Jim Crow era that followed the end of Reconstruction in 1877 was the formal introduction in voter disenfranchisement laws [CAMPBELL] by southern “redeemers,” the Voting Rights Act of 1965 saw the informal introduction to more subtle and variegated forms of vote suppression, including long purge lists, caging, reduced or eliminated opportunity for mail-in or early voting, imbalanced resource allocation of voting equipment and facilities, required early registration, voter ID requirements that serve as de facto disenfranchisement tools for minorities and disadvantaged, vote dilution through redistricting and at-large elections, and so forth. [WANG][CONYERS] This is how close elections are won and lost in the U.S. Foreign influence has had minimal effect at this point, although given the U.S. propensity for the use of inexpensive electronic election equipment, it's likely just a matter of time until some election is provably “hacked.”


There is one area where the Russians and other ideological aggressors may have made a difference in the last election: misinformation campaigns. Technologists have been particularly insensitive to the problems of network trolling and very few are seriously involved in its detection and debunking. [CHEN] I've discussed the problems that fake news causes with elections before [BERG2][BERG3], but suffice it to repeat here that without new technological tools, there is not much that can be done against pervasive and persistent misinformation campaigns – foreign or domestic. What I'll call the Fake News Phenomenon holds that the effect of disclosing fake news will be directly related to the knowledge and open-mindedness of the recipient and will be wasted on the uninformed and tribalists. This is among the most deep-seated types of psychological reactance (e.g., the Streisand effect) because (a) it is motivated by tribal passions, and (b) it has been weaponized by ideologues. This accounts for the fact that tribalists will adhere to a belief despite all contrary evidence. In recent years the effect is compounded by the fact that the term fake news has been politicized to the point where in some circles it has lost its original meaning of news that is false, and taken on the connotation of news that is contrary to a particular system of beliefs.

Russia's involvement in Internet trolling has been adequately documented [WALKER] [SEDDON][CNN]. There is a slang term, “trolls from Olgino,” for it. Slashdot offers a “how to” manual. [ARMITAGE] In fact, the U.S. Department of State has a web page devoted to it [STATE]. That said, modern governments have used propaganda to control global and domestic public opinion for over a century- it's the rule rather than the exception. Whether it's China's 50 Cent Party, Russia's Olgino factory, the CIA-initiated Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Marti, or Donald Trump's tweets, it's all a primarily partisan, content-free misinformation sourced to control public opinion. Fake news, Internet trolling, alternative facts, and a healthy dose of BS are the weapons of choice for modern political picadors. The reason that Russian trolling has drawn so much media attention recently is that it has been effective. However, let's remain clear about the proximate cause of these misinformation campaigns – we perfected the technique. This is just one of the nasty effects of American exceptionalism that has come back to haunt us. The solution is not to do more of it ourselves while condemning other sovereign nations for doing the same, but to bring the issue before public forums. In the meantime, the best short-term hope we have for mitigation is technological – mobile apps, browser add-ons, and the like, and certainly not an “cyber security alliance” between the principal offenders. [GELLER]

<ALT>-FAQs A Silk Road Less Travelled

Since my July column (Which is More Dangerous – the Dark Web or the Deep State, Computer, July, 2017) three judges of the 2 nd Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Ross Ulbricht's appeals for his conviction and sentencing relating to the Silk Road case. ( ) The opinion, written by Circuit Judge Gerard E. Lynch on May 31, 2017 reads like a judicial proceduralist manifesto: it found that the district court that convicted Ulbricht followed judicial guidelines and thus Ulbricht's claims that his trial wasn't fair, that the district court erred in overturning critical defense motions, and that his life sentence was not unreasonable. In other words, the appellate court found that the District Court did nothing illegal or unconstitional – but it did not, and could not, convincingly affirm that the District Courts' decision made sense. The transcript is noteworthy for its summary of the case thus far (footnote 1, p. 3 summarizes the charges for which the defendant was convicted). This case is highly relevant to the computing profession for many reasons unrelated to the Ulbricht case.

For one thing, the Circuit Court reaffirmed the use of the pen register to computer networks. That is, no person may have a legitimate expectation of privacy regarding to computing or networking information held by third parties as long as the information does not include message content. This means that any type of surveillance or data collection regarding “IP number, TCP collection data,” etc. may be collected and used by the government without benefit of warrant. Presumably this includes all sundry forms of metadata, not just address fields in packets. The problem with this position is that the metadata itself may “profile” user behavior more than the message content. The Circuit Court rejected this issue out of hand.

A second bothersome point is the Courts' liberal extension of the Fourth Amendment's “particularity” provision that requires that a warrant set out searches and seizures with some measure of specificity in order to avoid fishing expeditions. When applied to the digital domain, this presents a problem because the search for “computers and hard drives” is virtually unlimited in terms of range and scope of data involved – i.e., they “lack meaningful parameters on an otherwise limitless search” of a defendant's electronic media. In this case, the Circuit Court held that defendants must not “confuse a warrant's breadth with a lack of peculiarity” – read: as long as the cops meant well, whatever they find is fair game. Civil libertarians will no doubt greet this opinion with little enthusiasm.

There are also uncomfortable aspects. One of which is that two of the federal Silk Road investigators connected with the US Attorney's Offices for the District of Maryland, one an agent of the Secret Service and another of the Drug Enforcement Administration, were corrupt. Both were subsequently convicted of money laundering and obstruction of justice, and one was also convicted of extortion. Both were sentenced to lengthy prison terms but not until they had inserted themselves into the operation of the Silk Road marketplace. The DEA agent actually operated within Silk Road in a double undercover capacity: he provided information for the prosecutors as an undercover dealer, and also provided information to Silk Road about the progress of the government's investigation in exchange for $100,000 in Bitcoins. He then attempted to blackmail DreadPirateRoberts (who was unidentified at this point) for another $250,000. Most of the activity of the corrupt federal agents was not made available to the defense until just before trial – and some has not been made available to this day.

Ulbricht moved to suppress evidence gathered from his laptop computer on Fourth Amendment grounds and was denied. He also moved to introduce expert testimony – also denied. In addition, the District Court suppressed evidence from the two corrupt federal investigators and limited his cross-examination of two other government witnesses. I'm not convinced that any criminal trial could be fair under these circumstances. Particularly bothersome is the exclusion of all evidence regarding the corrupt investigator's involvement in the case. There is simply no way to know what if any damage they might have done to the case. But one thing is agreed to by all parties: these federal agents were criminals, and if they were willing to engage in extortion, violating Ulbricht's rights were probably fair game. According to the transcript, “ that [the DEA agent] was personally corrupt and used his undercover identity to steal money from Silk Road and DPR does not suggest either a motive or an ability on his part to frame Ulbricht as DPR. “ (p. 69). So much for the poisoned fruit thesis.

I have no background in law, but I do try to practice common sense whenever I can get away with it. I'm neither impressed with the reasoning behind the defense's appeal nor the Circuit Court's ruling. As I mentioned earlier [BERG2], I seems to me that a better defense strategy would have been to look for evidence of parallel construction. Given the law-and-order make-up of the current Supreme Court, it seems unlikely that Ulbricht will fare much better there than with the Second Circuit. In any event, this case has practical consequences for computer professionals and the transcript deserves perusal.


[ACOSTA] Acosta, Jim, White House furious after being trolled with Russia Oval Office photos, CNN politics, May 12, 2017. ( )

[AP-POLITICO] PUTIN: Russian state has never been involved in hacking, Associated Press, 06/01/2017. ( )

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