European cyberattacks signal more Russian election meddling: Microsoft

Recent cyberattacks discovered by Microsoft validate Europe’s fears that Russia, already blamed for meddling in the U.S. presidential election and the Brexit campaign, is aggressively targeting its parliamentary elections this spring.

The attacks aren’t limited to political campaigns themselves. In the last 4 months of 2018, hackers affiliated with Strontium, a group also known by the aliases of Fancy Bear and APT28 and linked to the Russian government, targeted 104 accounts belonging to employees of the German Council on Foreign Relations, the Aspen Institutes in Europe and the German Marshall Fund, the Redmond, Wash.-based company said.

“The attacks we’ve seen recently, coupled with others we discussed last year, suggest an ongoing effort to target democratic organizations,” said Tom Burt, Microsoft’s vice president of customer security. “They validate the warnings from European leaders about the threat level we should expect to see in Europe this year.”

The European Union’s elections, from May 23-26, give voters in member nations the chance to choose who represents them in its Parliament. They come a little more than 2 months after a deadline for Britain to finalize the terms of its departure from the trading bloc, the unexpected result of a referendum in 2016 in which Russia has been accused of interfering.

Microsoft is among a number of tech companies, including Facebook and Twitter, that have ramped up cybersecurity programs to fend off hackers and remove content from intelligence agencies seeking to leverage technology to influence voters in such campaigns and sway the results in favor of their respective governments.

[Opinion: 2019 goal: Crack down on cybersecurity]

In the run-up to the U.S. midterm elections, the company introduced new tools for campaigns using its apps that support files from text documents to email, as seizures of Internet accounts created by Russian government hackers increased. Those included notification of attacks across organizational and personal email systems, security training and previews of the latest protective measures through its AccountGuard initiative.

Election security for the races became a point of contention in Washington, D.C., and has now stretched into the 2020 presidential races, with special counsel Robert Mueller still investigating whether the Russian government worked with President Trump’s campaign to influence the 2016 presidential election.

Trump, for his part, has disputed claims that Moscow is responsible for hacking rival Hillary Clinton’s campaign and disclosing embarrassing material through WikiLeaks; he routinely calls Mueller’s probe a “rigged witch hunt.”

In the European cases, hackers have created malicious website and email addresses that appear legitimate and then used “spearfishing” to obtain employee credentials and deliver malware, Microsoft said.

“With European parliamentary elections this spring and American presidential elections next year, it is more important than ever that we be vigilant to protect our democracies from foreign interference, including online,” Karen Donfried, president of the German Marshall Fund, said afterward.

Along with candidates and campaigns, democratic organizations and individuals need to be on guard as “malign forces, including sophisticated state actors, seek to exploit them in the digital space,” she said.

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