Microsoft has revealed it recently disrupted domains associated with a Russian cyber attack group believed to be targeting US political groups ahead of the midterm elections
Microsoft has announce it will provide “state of the art” cyber security protection at no extra cost to all election candidates and campaign offices using Office 365.
The Defending Democracy Program, launched in April 2018, is aimed at protecting campaigns from hacking, protecting voting and the electoral process, increasing political advertising transparency, and defending against disinformation campaigns.
The AccountGuard initiative is aimed at providing a more comprehensive view of attacks against campaign staff and expedited recommendations to secure systems as well as continual guidance on how to make networks and email systems more secure and briefings and training to address evolving cyber attack trends.
Microsoft will also provide preview releases of new security features on a par with the services offered to its large corporate and government account customers. “Broadening cyber threats to both US political parties make clear that the tech sector will need to do more to help protect the democratic process,” said Microsoft president Brad Smith in a blog post.
He revealed that Microsoft’s Digital Crimes Unit (DCU) last week executed a court order to disrupt and transfer control of six internet domains created by a group widely associated with the Russian government and known as Strontium as well as Fancy Bear and APT28.
“We have now used this approach 12 times in two years to shut down 84 fake websites associated with this group. Attackers want their attacks to look as realistic as possible and therefore create websites and URLs that look like sites their targeted victims would expect to receive email from or visit. The sites involved in last week’s order fit this description,” said Smith.
The AccountGuard initiative, he said, is in response to concerns about security threats to groups connected with both US political parties in the run-up to the 2018 elections.
Smith said the special master appointed by a federal judge concluded in the recent court order obtained by DCU that there is “good cause” to believe Strontium is “likely to continue” its conduct.
“In the face of this continuing activity, we must work on the assumption these attacks will broaden further,” he said. “An effective response will require even more work to bring people and expertise together from across governments, political parties, campaigns and the tech sector.”
The court order transferred control of the six internet domains from Strontium to Microsoft, preventing Strontium from using them and enabling Microsoft to more closely look for evidence of what Strontium intended to do with the domains.
The six domains, said Smith, show a broadening of entities targeted by Strontium’s activities, with one appearing to mimic the domain of the International Republican Institute, which promotes democratic principles, and another being similar to the domain used by the Hudson Institute, which hosts prominent discussions on topics including cyber security.
While Microsoft has no evidence these domains were used in any successful attacks before the DCU transferred control of them, nor any evidence to indicate the identity of the ultimate targets of any planned attack involving these domains, the company has notified both organisations.
Microsoft said it will continue to work closely with the two organisations as well as other targeted organisations on countering cyber security threats to their systems. The company has also been monitoring and addressing domain activity with Senate IT staff the past several months, following attacks detected on the staff of two current senators.
“We are concerned by the continued activity targeting these and other sites and directed toward elected officials, politicians, political groups and think tanks across the political spectrum in the United States,” said Smith.
“Taken together, this pattern mirrors the type of activity we saw prior to the 2016 election in the United States and the 2017 election in France,” he said.
Microsoft plans to offer AccountGuard to countries outside the US “in coming months” as part of the evolution of its Defending Democracy Program, which Smith described as an important part of the company’s work to protect customers and promote cyber diplomacy around the world.
“While cyber security starts with Microsoft and other companies in the tech sector, it’s ultimately a shared responsibility with customers and governments around the world.
“Together with our industry partners, we’ve launched the Cybersecurity Tech Accord, now endorsed by 44 leading tech companies to protect and empower civilians online and to improve the security, stability and resilience of cyber space.
“And we will continue to call for stronger adherence to existing international norms and the creation of new international laws – like a Digital Geneva Convention,” he said.
Smith first mentioned the idea at RSA Conference 2017 in San Francisco, saying there was a need for a digital global convention that will call on the world’s governments to pledge that they will not engage in cyber attacks on the private sector, that they will not target civilian infrastructure, and that instead they will work with the private sector to respond to vulnerabilities, that they will not stockpile vulnerabilities and that they will take additional measures.
He said that in addition to a global convention, the world needs a new independent organisation like the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has addressed nuclear non-proliferation for decades.
Smith said the new organisation should bring together the brightest people in all sectors and should have the international credibility to confront and even identify attackers when nation state attacks occur.