So a Major Political Party Got Hacked by the Russian Government. Now What?

Everything about the Russian hack of the DNC is weird—including how little it might ultimately matter.

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Jun 15 2016, 4:08pm

Image: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

The Russian government allegedly hacked the Democratic National Committee, stealing the sum of the organization's opposition research on Donald Trump. Surely this means we've officially entered the age where American elections can be heavily influenced by hackers, right?

That was the working theory I had as I went out to report this story. The story, that Russia was able to steal all of the DNC's research on Trump as well as all of the DNC's emails and chats, was reported by The Washington Post and was quickly re-reported by hundreds of other outlets.

But outside of reporting the fact that it happened, no high-profile politicians have yet tried to use this as political leverage yet. Trump hasn't tweeted about Crooked Hillary and her cronies not being able to lock down her computer systems. The Republicans haven't complained about the DNC compiling a treasure trove of research to use against Trump. Basically, no one has said anything. Are we so sick of hacking that we don't really care that a state-sponsored hacker breached the offices of a major political party during a hotly contested presidential debate?

I called up a few experts in opposition research and in cybersecurity, who told me that the hack really, actually doesn't seem to be that big of a deal. Not because it wasn't sophisticated or because Russia didn't steal a lot of data (the Post reports that it had access for almost a year), but because the nature of this campaign is so weird that this just seems to be another little blip.

The 2008 DNC National Convention. Image: Richard Anderson/Flickr

A political play by the DNC?

Usually, when a company or organization is so thoroughly owned, details about what happened trickle out over the course of many months. A security researcher notices the hack or a hacker is selling data on the black market. The affected company or organization says it's "investigating" the hack, or declines to comment. Not so here: The only political organization talking about this hack is the DNC themselves.

"Looking at it, you can't help but think 'How does this fit politically?'"

In this case, the Washington Post ran a story with on-the-record comment from DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz as well as DNC CEO Amy Dacey. Moments later, CrowdStrike, the company hired to analyze the hack, published a lengthy blog post that goes into the specifics of how the network was compromised and which Russian government groups were likely behind it. The DNC appears to be an open book.

"I'm confused by how public they've been—normally this happens and an organization clams up about it. They'll even go through separate law firms to discuss what happens so that everything that's said is protected by attorney-client privilege from coming out in a lawsuit," Jason Healey, a cybersecurity researcher at Columbia University who used to work in the White House, told me.

"As a pro in this business, you want folks to come out and share this sort of information. In that sense, it's a good thing," Healey continued. "But looking at it, you can't help but think 'How does this fit politically?'"

A DNC spokesperson immediately responded to my request for comment and gave me a statement from Wasserman Schultz, who said "when we discovered the intrusion, we treated this like the serious incident it is and reached out to CrowdStrike immediately. Our team moved as quickly as possible to kick out the intruders and secure our network." The spokesperson then encouraged me to talk to CrowdStrike, which did not immediately return my request for comment.

Healey says he thinks that many different campaigns, political organizations, and political action committees are likely to have been targets of the Russians in separate hacks. By getting ahead of the story, the Democrats can say that they handled their hack in textbook fashion. Indeed, the Washington Post report says that "the networks of presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were also targeted by Russian spies, as were the computers of some GOP political action committees," though it doesn't note whether or not those attacks were successful. The RNC did not respond to a Motherboard request for comment and the Trump campaign referred the Washington Post to the Secret Service.

It's entirely possible that Russia and others are hacking or at least are attempting to hack basically anyone involved with the election right now. (Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said as much last month.) What may end up mattering politically is how campaigns and political offices actually respond to being hacked.

"This could be the DNC trying to get ahead of the story with the expectation the RNC and Trump either have been hacked and not disclosed it or haven't been able to detect it yet and they'll be able to say 'We did the right thing, we were up front about it,'" Healey said.

Likewise, if the RNC or Trump hammer Clinton or the DNC for not being able to handle security and it comes out that later that they've been breached, the Democrats would have good campaign fodder.

"I'm surprised we haven't seen Trump tweet about it yet—there must be some reason he knows it's something he should stay away from," Healey said.

Image: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

What can Russia do with this hack?

Will Caskey, a partner at the StanfordCaskey opposition research firm, told me that the nature of opposition research as well as the absurdity of this campaign makes it unlikely that this hack will have any lasting impact.

Even if the Russians released the hacking data in full (and there's been no indication that they will), Trump seems impervious to facts or his record.

"I have friends on Hillary's research team and they had rooms and buildings full of material on Trump. They spend hundreds, thousands of dollars on copying fees alone"

"Even if they dumped all the research they have on Trump, he'll say something racist or xenophobic tomorrow and everyone would forget [about the opposition research]," Caskey said.

Even if this were a more traditional campaign, opposition research itself has changed over the last decade or so. The DNC doesn't even handle most opposition research, David Brock's American Bridge Super PAC does. Clinton has her own opposition researchers as well, and, though the DNC and these groups share some opposition research, they don't share all of it. So the "entire database" of opposition research that the Russians stole from the DNC is likely not even a fraction of what the Dems have on Trump.

Opposition research is also made to be disseminated. There may be timing and strategy behind when it's released, but oppo research databases for a candidate like Trump are of an entirely different nature than in previous elections. He notes that Trump has been sued more than 1,500 times and has so many companies and business deals that for Democrats, it's more a question of figuring out whether there's anything Trump has done that people will care about.

"I have friends on Hillary's research team and they had rooms and buildings full of material on Trump. They spend hundreds, thousands of dollars on copying fees alone," Caskey told me. "If someone dumped all of this stuff on the internet tomorrow, no one has the time to go through it. Opposition research isn't really about finding where the skeletons are buried, it's about knowing how how to go through massive amounts of data and recognize what is a big deal and what's not a big deal."

"The idea this is going to cause problems for the Democrats isn't very strong"

Because of laws that are supposed to prevent campaigns from coordinating with Super PACs, the ways opposition research is disseminated has changed over the years as well. Campaigns and Super PACs will release their research in "public" document dumps that are "hidden" online in a way to coordinate talking points without actually coordinating.

"It wasn't hacking, but something that used to happen was to get away from coordination barriers, they started putting research on the internet so it'd be public," he said. "Unless you knew where to look, no one would ever find it. But then both parties started finding each others' research and started issuing sort of advanced cease-and-desist orders."

Caskey said the DNCs internal emails might be a little more problematic for Clinton, but said that Clinton's campaign likely didn't share anything of note with the DNC, and said internal strategy "leaks every cycle. It doesn't mean much in the grand scheme of things."

"Frankly, I have friends affected here, and the thing they're most pissed about is their Social Security numbers might be included in the stolen material," he said. "The idea this is going to cause problems for the Democrats isn't very strong."