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More Signs Point To Russian Cyberspy Connection In State Election Board Hacks

Researchers discover possible nation-sate link between attacks on Arizona and Illinois and recent attacks on Turkey and Ukraine governments.

As US intelligence and government leaders double down with investigations and concerns over what looks a lot like a Russian cyberattack-heavy effort to influence the US election and future policies, a new clue pointing to Russia has emerged in the recent breaches of the Arizona and Illinois voter information boards.

ThreatConnect found that an IP address (5.149.249[.]172) used in the recent state boards of election attacks was also used in spearphishing campaigns from March to August of this year against government officials in Turkey, Ukraine, and members of the German Freedom Party. The IP address was identified in an FBI Flash Bulletin advisory as an indicator of compromise in the attacks that compromised voter registration information in Arizona and Illinois.

“We’re not sure who attacked the state board of elections, but when we started investigating the indicators [provided by the] FBI, there was some highly circumstantial evidence,” says Toni Gidwani, director of research operations at ThreatConnect. Once the research team spotted the IP address’s ties to the Ukrainian government attacks and others, it looked more like a “state-based effort,” she says.

ThreatConnect points out that this IP address range is associated with plenty of malicious activity, namely in the cyber espionage-type versus traditional cybercrime. Even so, Gidwani says “we are unable to assess which actor or group might be behind the attacks based on the current evidence.”

Gidwani says her team hasn’t dismissed the possibility of an overlap between nation-state cyber espionage and cybercrime gangs in this case. “We need more evidence,” she says.

Peter Tran, general manager and senior director at RSA, the security division of EMC, says the value of voter information depends on the data: much of it is public domain information, such as name, party and email address, for example. “Campaigns and foundations have been aggregating this information for years and years,” Tran says, adding that correlating that information with other data could be quite lucrative for criminals and nation-state actors.

There’s also the possibility that Russian state actors are looking to alter voter registration status in an attempt to disrupt voting by preventing citizens from voting or sabotaging their voter identity information. But so far, no researchers have proof to share that this is the endgame.

Meanwhile, ThreatConnect’s Gidwani says she can’t fully rule out a false flag scenario. Even so, she says, there are signs that it’s not: “I don’t think so based on the fact that they took the spearphishing kit down shortly after we discovered it. They didn’t intend for us to find that … and the whole victim list they targeted,” she says. “I would also question who would gain from a false flag option.”

Another mystery: just what information the attackers were after in the state boards of elections, and whether other there are other board victims. “Was it just Arizona and Illinois?" she asks. "Or is it 20 or 50 states?”

It could also merely have been a way to probe how vulnerable the US election infrastructure is, she says. “This piece of our research left us with a lot more questions than answers.”

“Whether it is to ultimately collect intelligence, influence public opinion, or sow discord, doubt, or contempt with respect to political ideologies — the individuals behind this activity, whoever they may be, are looking to manipulate multiple countries’ democratic processes,” ThreatConnect wrote in its report

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