Russia-linked cyber espionage campaigns targeting Western elections have dominated the media in recent months. As serious as these events are, often overlooked in both media and industry reports on cyber espionage is a critical and persistent victim group: global civil society, notes Citizen Lab.
A healthy, fully-functioning, and vibrant civil society is the antithesis of non-democratic rule, and as a consequence, powerful elites threatened by their actions routinely direct their powerful spying apparatuses toward civil society to infiltrate, anticipate, and even neutralize their activities, the group writes in a new report:
Unlike industry and government, however, civil society groups typically lack resources, institutional depth, and capacity to deal with these assaults. For different reasons, they also rarely factor into threat industry reporting or government policy around cyber espionage, and can be the silent, overlooked victims…..We examine in detail how a report sent to the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) about Radio Liberty’s Russian investigative reporting project (contained in emails stolen from [Russia analyst David] Satter) was carefully modified with false information prior to being released. We show how this manipulation created the false appearance that prominent Russian anti-corruption figures, including Alexei Navalny, were receiving foreign funding for their activities. (Alexei Navalny is a well-known Russian anti-corruption activist and opposition figure). We also note how the document was used in an effort to discredit specific reports about corruption among close associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Every external operation is first and foremost a domestic one: the single most important role of the agencies is to secure the regime.” — Mark Galeotti on Russian foreign intelligence
- Documents stolen from a prominent journalist and critic of the Russian government were manipulated and then released as a “leak” to discredit domestic and foreign critics of the government. We call this technique “tainted leaks.”
- The operation against the journalist led us to the discovery of a larger phishing operation, with over 200 unique targets spanning 39 countries (including members of 28 governments). The list includes a former Russian Prime Minister, members of cabinets from Europe and Eurasia, ambassadors, high ranking military officers, CEOs of energy companies, and members of civil society.
- After government targets, the second largest set (21%) are members of civil society including academics, activists, journalists, and representatives of non-governmental organizations.
- We have no conclusive evidence that links these operations to a particular Russian government agency; however, there is clear overlap between our evidence and that presented by numerous industry and government reports concerning Russian-affiliated threat actors.
This report describes an extensive Russia-linked phishing and disinformation campaign. It provides evidence of how documents stolen from a prominent journalist and critic of Russia was tampered with and then “leaked” to achieve specific propaganda aims. We name this technique “tainted leaks.” The report illustrates how the twin strategies of phishing and tainted leaks are sometimes used in combination to infiltrate civil society targets, and to seed mistrust and disinformation. It also illustrates how domestic considerations, specifically concerns about regime security, can motivate espionage operations, particularly those targeting civil society. The report is organized into four parts described below:
PART 1: HOW TAINTED LEAKS ARE MADE describes a successful phishing campaign against David Satter, a high-profile journalist. We demonstrate how material obtained during this campaign was selectively released with falsifications to achieve propaganda aims. We then highlight a similar case stemming from an operation against an international grantmaking foundation, headquartered in the United States, in which their internal documents were selectively released with modifications to achieve a disinformation end. These “tainted leaks” were demonstrated by comparing original documents and emails with what Russia-linked groups later published. We conclude that the tainting likely has roots in Russian domestic policy concerns, particularly around offsetting and discrediting what are perceived as “outside” or “foreign” attempts to destabilize or undermine the Putin regime.
PART 2: A TINY DISCOVERY describes how the operation against Satter led us to the discovery of a larger phishing operation, with over 200 unique targets. We identified these targets by investigating links created by the operators using the Tiny.cc link shortening service. After highlighting the similarities between this campaign and those documented by previous research, we round out the picture on Russia-linked operations by showing how related campaigns that attracted recent media attention for operations during the 2016 United States presidential election also targeted journalists, opposition groups, and civil society.
PART 3: CONNECTIONS TO PUBLICLY REPORTED OPERATIONS outlines the connections between the campaigns we have documented and previous public reporting on Russia-linked operations. After describing overlaps among various technical indicators, we discuss the nuance and challenges surrounding attribution in relation to operations with a Russian nexus.
PART 4: DISCUSSION explores how phishing operations combined with tainted leaks were paired to monitor, seed disinformation, and erode trust within civil society. We discuss the implications of leak tainting and highlight how it poses unique and difficult threats to civil society. We then address the often-overlooked civil society component of nation-state cyber espionage operations.
Media coverage: Financial Times.