The next big hacking threat may go beyond the cyberattacks and internet leaks at the heart of current U.S. intelligence investigations into Russia, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told senators this week.
“The next worrisome trend in the cyber business will be the compromise of the fidelity of information. And, whether it’s for a criminal purpose or political purpose . . . this is well within the realm, I think, of possibility,” Clapper said.
Clapper’s warning about hackers gaining access to high-profile targets and then manipulating stolen information or masquerading on their accounts came in response to a question from Florida Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing Tuesday.
Rubio said Russia had been successful in its effort to “sow chaos” before and after the 2016 presidential election. He cited then-Republican nominee for president Donald Trump’s frequent talk on the campaign trail about election “fraud.” Later, Rubio said, supporters of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton began “questioning the legitimacy of the president-elect because of Russian interference.” And lately Trump has questioned “the credibility of the intelligence community because of its findings,” Rubio said.
“In essence, it sounds like they achieved what they wanted. To get us to fight against each other,” Rubio said.
He moved on to what he called a hypothetical scenario, one where a foreign adversary successfully frames a U.S. politician.
“Imagine there’s a U.S. senator or congressman who adopts a policy position that the Kremlin does not agree with,” Rubio said. “Somehow, through a phishing expedition they gain access to your personal computer network. And once they gain access to your personal computer network, they use it to fabricate and/or actually conduct . . . child pornography . . . (or) let’s say money laundering activity. And then they call law enforcement and tip them off.”
Such a plot, Rubio said, would ruin the political life of the victim and result in criminal charges.
“Is this not what we have seen . . . employed by Russian intelligence on behalf of the government of Vladimir Putin and other countries around the world?” Rubio said. “Is that not a tactic they have used to discredit individual political figures? And isn’t it true that that could very well happen here in the United States?”
The scenario, though not real, is “certainly well within both their technical competence and their potential intent,” Clapper said in response.
Rubio is one of at least 10 co-sponsors who on Tuesday unveiled a new sanctions bill aimed at Russia. The legislation, which has both Democratic and Republican senators’ support, would codify in law the recent actions announced as punishment for Russian hacking by President Barack Obama. The bill also seeks to freeze visa approvals in the U.S. for anyone from Russia involved in hacking.
Called the Countering Russian Hostilities Act of 2017, the bill – spearheaded by Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona, both Republicans – would boost State Department funding designed to combat propaganda.