Back in 2014, we learned that the National Security Agency (NSA) could activate the cameras and microphones on the laptops and smartphones of surveillance targets. The news went like so: "[NSA] has sent out spam emails laced with the malware, which can be tailored to covertly record audio from a computer’s microphone and take snapshots with its webcam." The digital weapon for taking over a camera is called GUMFISH, while the codename for taking over a microphone was reported to be CAPTIVATEDAUDIENCE.
We learned all of this via the documents stolen by former NSA analyst Edward Snowden and handed off to journalists Barton Gellman, Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald. You probably also heard that Snowden absconded off with the documents at first to Hong Kong and then, thanks to Wikileaks and its staff, Snowden was shuttled to Moscow where he remains a welcome guest of the Kremlin.
Today, we learned that Russia has used similar "active measures" to potentially acquire compromising data on 2,300 media and political officials inside the United States. Politico reported:
In May and June of 2015, Kellermann, who was then the chief cybersecurity officer at Trend Micro, said the firm warned the FBI and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that Kremlin hackers had drawn up a list of 2,300 people comprising the most powerful leaders in Washington and New York along with their spouses and lovers to target with a concerted hacking campaign. Kellerman said he does not know whether the government acted on the tip, which warned that the hackers had the ability to turn on microphones and cameras on the personal devices of their targets to obtain sensitive information about their personal lives.
This revelation was buried at the end of a lengthy article about how Russia also targeted American military personnel with online propaganda and the like.
In addition to propaganda designed to influence service members and veterans, Russian state actors are friending service members on Facebook while posing as attractive young women to gather intelligence and targeting the Twitter accounts of Defense Department employees with highly customized “phishing” attacks. The same Russian military hacking group that breached the Democratic National Committee, “Fancy Bear,” was also responsible for publicly posting stolen Army data online...
It's safe to say that most of America's power elite have been targeted for kompromat by Russia intelligence. It's not a surprise to those who understand the extent of Russia's spycraft, but what stood out for me was the camera/microphone thing. Sure, it's entirely possible that Russian hackers developed this active measure on their own. But it also makes sense to take another hard look at Snowden and whether the information he stole while working as an NSA analyst at Booz Allen Hamilton in Hawaii has been snatched by his Kremlin benefactors.
Reports suggest that Snowden didn't transport his documents to Russia, leaving the thumbdrives with Greenwald and Poitras. But the British Sunday Times ran a story back in 2015, followed up by an article by Bruce Schneier for WIRED, indicating that it's almost certain that both China and Russia were able to attain Snowden's cache of NSA secrets, including details about GUMFISH and CAPTIVATEDAUDIENCE. Senior British officials told the Times that MI6, England's CIA, had to "pull agents out of live operations in hostile countries" due to Russia having copies of the Snowden files.
Could it be possible that Russia is exploiting some of the techniques gleaned from the Snowden documents in order to carry out this extensive attack on the United States, including our top officials and, of course, our election and the presidency? At this point, anything's possible. To repeat: Snowden was escorted to Moscow by Wikileaks, which is obviously a Russian asset. While in Hong Kong, Snowden lived "for several days" at the Russian consulate where officials there even threw a birthday pizza party for the fugitive. After that, and after Wikileaks shepherded Snowden to Moscow where Putin personally granted him asylum, Snowden picked up an attorney by the name of Anatoly Kucherena -- a lawyer for the Russian Federal Security Service, also known as the FSB. The FSB was formerly known as the KGB.
Draw your own conclusions from all of that.
Obviously, Snowden employed his best operational security measures to hide his location and to protect his trove of NSA PowerPoint slides. However, Russian hackers had plenty of breathing room in which to work on infiltrating Snowden's laptop(s) well before the 2016 election cycle got underway. And if they were successful, they'd know exactly how to turn America's counter-intelligence operations against both American assets and our democratic institutions.
At the very least, Russian hackers know the extent of various operations simply through the public reporting on the Snowden matter.
I'm not necessarily saying Snowden is/was a willing accomplice in the Trump-Russia story, but knowing the extent of Russia's attack we have no choice but to examine whether Americans, be they the Trump team or other useful idiots, helped the Kremlin pull off the most damaging cyber attack ever orchestrated against the United States.