Suspected Russian hand in UK election serves as warning to US for 2020
Leaked documents, provenance unknown, that seem to cast a political party in a negative light, appear online at a critical moment in an election campaign and are paraded in front of voters and the media by the party’s rivals.
Later, it emerges that a foreign government — an unfriendly one — may have had a role in the documents coming to light.
It’s a scenario some Americans fear might play out during the 2020 election — it did happen here in 2016, after all — and it is a scenario that is playing out right now in the United Kingdom just days before the country, in the grips of a crisis over Brexit, votes in an election that may determine how and whether it separates from the European Union.
Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party, late last month presented the press with copies of British government documents that he said showed the United Kingdom’s health service could be privatized as a result of a potential trade deal with the US negotiated under his rival, Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Johnson has denied that Britain’s health system would be on the table for any trade negotiations.
A UK government spokesperson said in a statement that the government is looking “into the matter, with support from the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC).”
The spokesperson did not comment on the authenticity of the documents, saying, ” We do not comment on leaks, and it would be inappropriate to comment further.”
While it is unclear how and when those documents were originally posted online, an October 21 Reddit post linking to the documents has recently been widely shared. The documents had previously gone mostly unnoticed, according to Graphika, a firm that tracks online information campaigns. On Friday Reddit said it believed that October 21 post and others around the same time were linked to a campaign that originated in Russia, confirming an analysis by Graphika.
Graphika found evidence that the people behind the campaign sent links to the posts directly to British journalists and politicians. It is unclear whether those same people have been responsible for other leaks, but the tactic is, at least, familiar in the US: in 2016, the Russian persona Guccifer 2.0, which was involved in releasing hacked Democratic Party emails, also communicated directly with journalists through social media. Russian trolls who used social media for their operations in the US around the 2016 election also targeted influential people and news outlets, successfully getting them to effectively draw attention to — even sometimes through negative attention — the accounts with which they pretended to be Americans.
“Information operations don’t just scatter their stories to the winds — they try and land them in front of individual influencers,” Ben Nimmo, director of investigations at Graphika, told CNN Business Monday.
He warned, “It’s precision targeting, and it means that influencers need to be very careful with anything they’re sent from an unknown source.”
“Campaigns need to make sure they invest in cybersecurity. Journalists need to make sure they really check whether any leaks are both genuine and newsworthy, and ask how they were obtained. Leaks can have important content, but it’s important to ask about the context too,” Nimmo said.
The same covert Russian group believed to be involved in the recent leak in the UK is believed to have previously impersonated Senator Marco Rubio online.
The Russian government consistently denies claims of state interference in foreign election processes.
Some US Democrats have made varying degrees of pledges not to use hacked material in 2020 after their own party was hacked in 2016 by Russian intelligence operatives — Republicans have been largely quiet on the issue.
After the 2016 election, The New York Times published a front-page story that conceded the extensive coverage by news organizations including The Times and CNN of hacked emails tied to the Hillary Clinton campaign by news organizations had turned newsrooms into a “de facto instrument of Russian intelligence.”
When contacted by CNN Business in April, major American newsrooms did not reveal any sweeping changes to their rules about publishing hacked materials since the 2016 election.
“The decision to publish any information, including hacked documents, is made primarily on the basis of whether it is newsworthy and in the public interest, while also taking privacy concerns into consideration,” New York Times spokesperson Danielle Rhoades Ha told CNN Business at the time. “When we publish, we aim to give readers as much context as possible about the information and the motivation for its release.”
A spokesperson for CNN said in April the newsroom would examine incidents on a case by case basis.
Spokespeople for The Times and CNN confirmed to CNN Business Tuesday that their policies have not changed.
As well-intentioned as pledges from politicians to not use hacked materials, and from newsrooms like the Times to provide their readers with details about motivations for the release of such materials might be, it is not always immediately clear if a given leak is the result of a hack, never mind who might be responsible for the hack or leak, and what their motivations might be.
CNN’s Vasco Cotovio in London and CNN’s Kevin Collier and Oliver Darcy in New York contributed reporting