The U.S. has just accused Russia of hacking America’s elections. That’s a very big deal.

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Publication Date: 
October 7, 2016

Obama administration security officials have formally accused Russia of interfering with the U.S. presidential election. The Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security made a joint statement, saying that ““[t]he U.S. intelligence community is confident that the Russian government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from U.S. persons and institutions, including from U.S. political organizations.” Here’s what lies behind the accusations and here’s what happens next.

[U.S. government officially accuses Russia of hacking campaign to interfere with elections]

The United States is accusing Russia of wide-scale interference.

The U.S. statement is brief, but makes a quite specific charge against Russia. It claims that the Russian government has been behind recent hacking attacks on “US persons and institutions” that have led to material being leaked to outlets like DCLeaks and WikiLeaks. While it does not name the persons and institutions, it is presumably referring to the hacks of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The DNC hacks were purportedly carried out by an actor calling himself “Guccifer 2.0,” after Guccifer, a notorious hacker who went after celebrities. There has been much speculation that Guccifer 2.0 is Russian, some of it fueled by national intelligence officials speaking off the record. Now the U.S. government has come out and made a formal accusation, claiming that “only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities” given their sensitivity.

The statement also notes that a Russia-based company has been linked to efforts to probe “election related systems,” but that there is not yet enough evidence to “attribute this activity to the Russian government.” These sentences are plausibly a shot across Russia’s bow, suggesting that Russia will be held to blame if voting machines are hacked.

We don’t know what evidence the U.S. government has.

As noted, there has been widespread speculation that Guccifer 2.0 is an alias for a Russian-based hacker or team of hackers. The metadata (data about who edited a document, and when, among other things) of a Guccifer 2.0.-linked Microsoft Word document indicates that it was edited by someone using Cyrillic script and identifying himself as “Felix Dzerzhinsky,” while metadata on a Guccifer 2.0 PDF has error messages suggesting that it was converted on a computer using the Russian language.

However, these traces are best described as indicative circumstantial evidence rather than a smoking gun. They could, possibly, be faked. (It isn’t hard to monkey around with metadata.) That raises the possibility that U.S. intelligence agencies have other evidence that they find convincing but are not currently disclosing to the public.

Read the full piece at The Washington Post