The US Department of Defense’s Cyber Command has launched it’s first cyberoperation against alleged Russian hackers.
The campaign, first reported by The New York Times, is part of General Paul Nakasone’s increased focus on deterring such aggression, which the “dual-hatted” head of Cyber Command and the National Security Agency has called his first priority.
In a surprisingly gentle effort by the Pentagon, the US Cyber Command is messaging the alleged Russian trolls and warning the presumably state-backed misinformation spreaders that the US is watching.
This is the first time such operations were reportedly undertaken, since the Obama administration. Trump relaxed the rules governing offensive operations, thus allowing offensive cyberoperations through the relevant US departments.
The current cyberoperation plan involves simply that – reaching out to the presumed Russian troll and telling them that the US knows who they are and what they’re doing and that they should stop.
Other details haven’t been released, whether the US is contacting them via a Twitter direct message, or via email. Tech Crunch claimed that the operation sends a strong enough message without sparking an escalation in the already tense Washington-Moscow relations.
“Simply telling individual Russian operators that the American intelligence community is aware of them individually, and watching them, is a big deal,” said Thomas Rid as cited by the Independent.
A Cyber Command spokesperson wouldn’t comment on the operation but noted that U.S. government leadership “has made it clear that it will not accept any foreign interference, or attempts to undermine or manipulate our elections in any way,” and this includes the government’s efforts “to protect election infrastructure and prevent malign, covert election influence operations.”
The operation is quote dubious, since if the targeted individuals are, in fact, “Russian government hackers,” messaging them would not lead to anything, they would just continue their efforts. If they are not “Russian government hackers,” but rather just individuals who have a specific opinion they are expressing, and it does not correlate with the US narrative, then the Pentagon is contradicting itself and cannot even adequately target its “adversaries.”
“I’m sceptical that mere warnings to Russian operatives will serve as an effective deterrent,” said Michael Carpenter, a former deputy assistant US secretary of defense who handled Russia policy. “I think it’s more likely to drive them to try other attack vectors. If there were a way to disrupt their operations, however, I don’t think that should be out of bounds.”
This operation follows a US Department of Justice “name and shame” indictment of Russian national Elena Khusyaynova, charged on October 19th with interfering with the midterm elections. Khusyaynova, a St. Petersberg resident, is accused of serving as the chief accountant of “Project Lakhta,” an allegedly well-funded mostly online Russian effort to meddle in elections by spreading misinformation and propaganda.
According to Tech Crunch, the US Cyber Command had a previous operation, in which it launched offensive “cyber bombs” against operatives of ISIS in an effort to disrupt and freeze the group’s infrastructure. The operation was not considered successful.