A week after a hacker going by the name of ‘Guccifer 2.0’ claimed responsibility for the hack on the Democratic National Committee, the mysterious individual spoke publicly for the first time. Guccifer 2.0 called himself a “hacker, manager, philosopher, women lover.” And of course, someone who likes Gucci.
“I bring the light to people,” he added in an online chat with Motherboard. “I'm a freedom fighter!”
More importantly, the hacker also denied being Russian and working for the Russian government, as many suspect he is. Just like the original Guccifer, whose handle and fame inspired his, Guccifer 2.0 claimed to be Romanian. But a linguistic analysis of his messages in Romanian, as well as his oftentimes broken English, might reveal more about his real origins than his claims.
“I’m very pleased the company appreciated my skills so highly))) But in fact, it was easy, very easy,” the hacker wrote in a blog post, defining himself as a “lone hacker.”
The whodunnit in this case is a necessary question to answer.
Several security experts, judging from extensive circumstantial evidence, the potential motives behind the hack, the subsequent public responsibility claim, as well as the timeline of the events, said that the Guccifer 2.0 persona was likely part of a Russian government’s effort to cover up its own hack and spread disinformation.
Whether Guccifer 2.0 is Russian and, most importantly, part of a Russian government-orchestrated attack on a US political institution is crucial here. While it’s normal and expected for spies to spy on their own enemies, it’s unusual, and way more dangerous, if those spies disseminate the intelligence they gather with the intention of influencing the internal politics of their biggest enemy. For some, that crosses a red line, so the whodunnit in this case is a necessary question to answer.
Is Guccifer 2.0 Really Romanian?
Despite claiming to be Romanian, Guccifer 2.0 didn’t seem to be a native Romanian speaker, according to several Romanians who reviewed the transcript of our conversation with him, which was in part carried out in Romanian. (Disclosure: For my part, I used Google Translate).
For example, he used the word “filigran” for “watermark,” which the Romanian speakers who reviewed our chat logs with Guccifer 2.0 said is an unusual translation. Moreover, after a short exchange in Romanian, the hacker refused to answer longer questions, saying he didn’t want me to “waste” his time.
A chart showing some of the mistakes in Romanian made by Guccifer 2.0
The Romanians who reviewed the logs also pointed out instances in which Guccifer 2.0's sentence construction was off, and that while chatting, native speakers usually don’t bother to use diacritics, or letters such as “â” “ă” or “ț.”
What About His English Skills?
The hacker’s English is also clearly not native, and was at times excellent, and at times awful. In one particular exchange, he displayed this contradiction:
Q: Do you work with Russia or the Russian government?
A: No because I don't like Russians and their foreign policy. I hate being attributed to Russia.
A: I’ve already told! Also I made a big deal, why you glorify them?
The first answer is perfect English. The second one, however, is far less eloquent. Also, the “I’ve already told” phrase could be a sign of a Russian, or at least Slavic, speaker, given the absence of the object, “you”, according to Maria Doubrovskaia, a Russian language instructor at Columbia University.
This might suggest the hacker had some answers in proper English prepared in advance (perhaps to predictable questions such as “Are you Russian?” or “How did you hack the DNC?”), while for others he had to improvise and didn’t have time to proofread during our live chat. This seems to be confirmed by the fact that Guccifer 2.0 gave me and my colleague Joseph Cox the same, word-for-word answer to a question about how he hacked the DNC.
It’s also entirely possible that the person, or people, behind Guccifer 2.0 are purposely making these sorts of mistakes and being inconsistent to throw people off.
Guccifer 2.0 also sometimes did not use definite and indefinite (“the” and “a/an”) articles when writing in English. That could be a sign that his native language doesn’t use them, according to an American university professor who specializes in Slavic syntax and asked to remain anonymous.
“Russian certainly lacks such articles…but so do all other East and West Slavic languages,” she wrote in an email. “As for Romanian, the language DOES have both indefinite and definite articles, so I wouldn’t necessarily expect such mistakes in English from a native speaker of Romanian.”
A Motherboard reader, who contacted me via email said he taught English to several Russian speakers, said Guccifer 2.0 “has very strong Russian-English syntax (word order) and in some cases unnecessary formality in vocabulary choices that say to me either educated in Russia, or a lot of time in Russia learning Russian-English.”
But not everyone is that sure. M.J. Connolly, a professor of Slavic and Eastern European linguistics at Boston College, said that Russians tend not to carry the construction using the word “language” after the language name (such as “Russian language,” or “Romanian language”) when they speak English.
Connolly added that Guccifer 2.0’s English actually doesn’t show some Russian traces he would have expected, such as how at times the hacker does use some indefinite articles, and doesn’t substitute present tenses for past tenses.
“All I can say is: no smoking gun here,” Connolly said in an email. “The English is very East Euro web talk, which Russians and Romanians and all Eastern Europeans share but, as I've pointed out already, many of the traits are non-Russian.”
For Connolly, the hacker could also be Moldovan, given that the country is a mixed Romanian-Russian environment and many Moldovans, especially the anti-Russian ones, “will identify as Romanian.”
What Does Guccifer 2.0 Say?
After I pressed him to speak more Romanian on Tuesday, Guccifer 2.0 stopped answering my questions via Twitter.
“Man, I'm not a pupil at school,” he said in one of his last answers, in English. “If u have serious questions u can ask. Don't waste my time.”
But on Wednesday, a day later, he got back to me, saying he would provide more answers on his blog post, after collecting more inquiries from other reporters and choosing the most popular ones. He also announced this upcoming FAQ on his blog, adding that anyone can now send him questions via Twitter. As of Thursday morning, he has not yet posted anything, and he hasn’t responded to a series of detailed questions we sent him in Romanian.
The hacker’s words, and language skills, have certainly raised even more questions about his real identity and motives.
It’s possible that whoever is behind Guccifer 2.0 really is being deluged with questions. Or, perhaps, after he exposed himself in our interview, he’s decided that it’s safer to pick and choose the questions he wants to answer, and take more time to answer them in proper English.
Whether that means Guccifer 2.0 really is a Russian agent or controlled by a group or Russian spies, we can’t really know at this point. But the hacker’s words, and language skills, have certainly raised even more questions about his real identity and motives.
Asked about Guccifer 2.0, a spokesperson for the Russian embassy in D.C. said that “the possibility of involvement of Russian government, including government agencies and representatives, in hacking activities is completely ruled out.”