The publication that revealed a classified National Security Agency report on alleged Russian attempts to hack U.S. election-related systems treats the report as possible evidence that Russia tried to rig the vote. More likely, however, the Kremlin expected the vote to be rigged in favor of Hillary Clinton.
According to the leaked report, the Russian military intelligence, GRU, ran a spear-phishing campaign targeting the employees of VR Systems, a voting hardware and software producer. At least one of its employee accounts was apparently compromised. Then, the hackers used the harvested credentials to trap local government officials in charge of organizing elections. Emails, coming credibly from a VR Systems employee, contained malware that would have allowed the GRU (although the report provides no clues as to how the attribution was made) to control the computers of these local officials. The NSA doesn’t seem to have determined whether the hackers managed that with any of their targets.
Reality Winner, 25, the NSA contractor accused of leaking the report to the Intercept, an online news organization, had an apparent motive: Her Twitter feed (under the name Sara Winners) shows she was disappointed when Trump won. So far, Russia’s alleged help to Trump in the 2016 election has amounted to Russian sources stealing and publishing some emails and documents related to the campaign of Trump’s rival, Hillary Clinton. That’s not particularly dangerous to Trump unless it can be shown that his campaign colluded with the hackers — or that Russia tried to influence the actual vote count. The report appears to imply just that.
In reality, even if GRU-affiliated hackers got into computers of local officials in states where VR Systems technology was used, they couldn’t have changed the election outcome.
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VR doesn’t actually make voting machines. It makes electronic poll books that make paper voter rolls unnecessary. They allow an election worker to check a voter’s personal data against the rolls and issue a ballot. By messing with such a system, hackers could produce confusion, making it difficult for voter names to be verified. They could even enable ineligible people to vote — but there would need to be large numbers of such ineligible people available for massive fraud.
The Intercept story suggests that the same local officials who handle the electronic voter rolls also manually install updates on the voting machines. If so, they could inadvertently infect the voting equipment with malware. But even if that happened, it didn’t swing any states Trump’s way.
I have written that it’s not impossible to rig a U.S. presidential election (and was ridiculed for saying so). The rigging, however, would require a vast conspiracy spanning the entire country and involving local election officials — the kind that exists in Russia. Trump, with his cheap, hastily thrown together campaign infrastructure, could have achieved nothing of the kind, but as the election campaign drew to a close he appeared to fear such an effort from the Obama administration.
Experts pooh-poohed this conspiracy talk, pointing out how disparate the U.S. election system was and what a massive clandestine effort would be required to subvert it.
Hacking VR Systems and the local officials would have been much more useful to the GRU if it had been conducting an intelligence operation to detect pro-Clinton fraud than if it had been planning to rig the election.
That, of course, doesn’t rule out collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign when it came to releasing damaging information about Clinton. That is still for U.S. authorities to investigate. But the NSA report, which is likely to land Reality Winner in prison, at best provides additional evidence of Putin’s skepticism of Trump, not of his meddling with vote results.
Russia doesn’t run the U.S. — American voters do, even if they have excellent reasons today to regret their decision of November 8.