Intelligence officials have long been warning that Russian agents will inevitably try to interfere in the 2020 campaign—now some appear to have been caught targeting nearly 200 political operations, including a a key communications firm with deep ties to the Biden campaign.
Reuters reported Thursday morning that suspected Russian state-backed hackers have attempted to breach the systems at Washington-based SKDKnickerbocker, a strategy and communications firm working hand-in-glove with Joe Biden’s campaign. The attacks, which took place over the past two months, were unsuccessful.
The failed hacking attempt was brought to SKDK’s attention by Microsoft, which reportedly gathered information identifying hackers linked to the Kremlin as the most likely suspects. The attacks are said to have mainly focused on phishing—a common hacking method which lures users into disclosing sensitive passwords.
That was the method used by Russian hackers to access DNC emails, which were subsequently leaked online, ahead of the 2016 presidential election.
A person familiar with SKDK’s repellingof the hacking attempts said the agents didn’t get very far, telling Reuters: “They are well-defended, so there has been no breach.” Another source said it was impossible to confirm if Biden’s campaign was the target, or whether the Russians were trying to gather intel on the long list of other SKDK clients.
SKDK has an extremely close relationship with the Democratic Party—the firm’s managing director, Anita Dunn, served as a White House communications director during the Barack Obama presidency and now works for the Biden campaign as a top adviser.
Officially, neither SKDK, Microsoft, or the Biden campaign have commented on the Reuters report.
It’s not the first time Microsoft has managed to thwart suspected Russian government hackers—in 2017, the software maker identified over 120 new targets of the Kremlin’s cyber spying by suing the notorious hacker group known as Fancy Bear. Microsoft’s legal action led to the seizure of 70 command-and-control servers the hackers used to covertly direct malware on victim computers.
Microsoft also helped to foil the Russian intelligence agents who targeted Sen. Claire McCaskill with a phishing campaign as she began her 2018 re-election campaign.
Unsurprisingly, the Kremlin was quick to deny any connection to the latest attempted phishing attempts. In comments reported by the Russian government-owned TASS news agency, President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, said he had no idea what SKDK is and added, ”It looks like just another nonsense that is published, unfortunately, by a sometimes respected agency.”
U.S. intelligence officials briefed House lawmakers as early as last February that Russian actors were already interfering in the 2020 elections, once more to the benefit of Trump. The briefing was conducted for the House Intelligence Committee by an aide to then acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire, who was later forced out of his position by Trump.
Earlier this month, intelligence officials publicly confirmed their belief that Russia is using a range of techniques to damage Biden and, last week, the FBI stepped in to warn Facebook that Russia’s troll farm was parading as a nonprofit news organization in an attempt to promote criticism of Biden from the left.
The Department of Homeland Security has also discovered a Russian plot spreading disinformation about Biden’s mental health—a reoccurring theme of Trump’s attacks on his rival.
Biden said last Friday that the Trump administration is wrong about China being the biggest threat to U.S. elections, saying, “There are a lot of countries around the world I think would be happy to see our elections destabilized. But the one who’s working the hardest most consistently and never has let up is Russia.”
Later on Thursday, Microsoft announced that it had observed Russian hackers target at least 200 organizations, including Democratic and Republican political consultants, political parties at the state and national level, American think tanks, and European political parties over the past “several months.” The company said that its software blocked “most” of the attempted hacks and that it has notified all of those targeted or breached.
Hacking groups linked to the Chinese government attempt to break into networks associated with the Biden campaign, prominent international relations pundits, think tanks, and “at least one prominent individual formerly associated with the Trump Administration,” Microsoft added.
An Iranian hacking group also tried and failed to break into Trump campaign-related accounts in May and June, according to Microsoft.