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U.S. Blames Russian Hackers For High-Profile Cyber Attacks


And today in All Tech Considered, what's behind Russia's attempts to hack into the Democratic National Committee's computer server, leak politically sensitive emails and possibly tamper with state election systems.


SHAPIRO: In last night's presidential debate, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump both talked about Russia's involvement in some of the most high profile cyberattacks in the past year.


HILLARY CLINTON: Our intelligence community just came out and said in the last few days that the Kremlin, meaning Putin and the Russian government, are directing the attacks, the hacking on American accounts, to influence our election.

DONALD TRUMP: But I notice any time anything wrong happens, they like to say the Russians are - she doesn't know if it's the Russians.

SHAPIRO: Joining us now to talk more about Russia's role is Dr. Kenneth Geers. He's a former cyber analyst at the Pentagon, who focuses on Russia's role in cyberespionage. Welcome to the program.

KENNETH GEERS: Thank you. I was happy to be here.

SHAPIRO: We know that Russia's had a history of cyberespionage for almost as long as the Internet has been around. Give us a snapshot of Russia's role in present-day cyberattacks within the United States.

GEERS: Basically, we're target number one for many countries and especially Russia and China. If, for example, there is a way to further Russian national security interests in the United States, whether it's through information warfare or other means, they will do it. It's only natural, and it fits within their interests.

So if they perceive one candidate as more attractive to Russian interests than another, Russian intelligence services will be active in trying to promote that candidate within our political space.

SHAPIRO: When you say it fits with Russia's interests, tell me more about that. What exactly is the Russian motive?

GEERS: Well, if Donald Trump, for example, has a background that is more friendly to Russian politics, business and national security interests, well, they would love to see him in the White House. And so they'll do a range of operations. Cyber computer network operations are just one sort of weapon in a larger arsenal that they could use. But it's a low attribution, low signature...

SHAPIRO: You mean it's hard to pin it on Russia?

GEERS: That's right because, essentially, all you have are sort of hacker tools and techniques that you find in places like the basement of the Pentagon. And it takes a lot of time to understand who is behind certain attacks. All you really know, for example, is data is leaking or you're getting information operations within your social media space. It takes time to dig into not only the technical but the content of the attack to see who might be behind it.

And often, the attack is long since over.

SHAPIRO: You've said that Russia may want to influence this election, and that could be the motive for the hacking. Is there any potential that they can actually hack into voting machines and change the tally?

GEERS: Now, changing the result of the election is probably impossible. But you can target the integrity of the election. So in Ukraine, for example, they had hacked into the system that basically displays the winner or the ongoing results during the Election Day. They posted that a far-right candidate had won. And that information was immediately transmitted on Russian television.

So it was a large-scale information operation that was successful in undermining the integrity of the Ukrainian presidential election.

SHAPIRO: When Russia hacks into U.S. systems and documents got posted on, say, WikiLeaks, should we assume that those documents are unaltered?

GEERS: Absolutely not. They could alter the information. They could leave certain documents out or they could add certain documents pretending like they were part of the original store. So in this space, the cyberspace in particular is nothing but a hall of smoke and mirrors that is perfect for the international world of espionage.

SHAPIRO: Because so much of this takes place in secret, should we assume the U.S. is already responding?

GEERS: I would think so. If I were a, you know, national security adviser, I would advise some kind of response because the Russians have been involved in this in numerous countries over many years going back to Chechnya, Estonia, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, Georgia so - and the United States on multiple occasions now.

So in some sense, you have to let them know that there are red lines that have been crossed and that you have the capability, in fact, to make - give them some pain as well. That's the essence of deterrence is if you break my arm, I can break your leg. And how far do you want to go? So if you have the capabilities, you should demonstrate them.

SHAPIRO: Dr. Kenneth Geers is with the Atlantic Council, and he's co-author of the book "Cyber War In Perspective: Russian Aggression Against Ukraine." Thanks for joining us.

GEERS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.