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By Dustin Volz
Suspected nation-state hackers from Russia, Iran and elsewhere have launched nearly 800 cyberattacks against political organizations over the past year that have been detected by Microsoft Corp., with the vast majority of the attempts targeting groups based in the U.S.
Think tanks and nongovernmental groups that work with candidates or political parties -- or on issues important to their campaigns -- have suffered most of the attacks. The assaults could be a precursor to direct attacks on campaigns and election systems, a trend in recent election cycles in the U.S. and Europe, Microsoft said Wednesday.
The findings are the latest indication that foreign governments are laying the groundwork ahead of the 2020 presidential election to potentially disrupt American politics, as senior U.S. intelligence officials have repeatedly warned.
Federal agencies have dedicated more resources to election security since 2016, but cash-strapped campaigns remain broadly vulnerable, and the Republican-controlled Senate isn't expected to consider legislation tackling the issue before the election.
Microsoft said it had delivered 781 notifications of suspected nation-state attacks to customers globally who are enrolled in its AccountGuard service, a free security tool offered to federal, state and local political candidates, party committees, election-oriented technology vendors and select nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations that use Microsoft Office 365. Microsoft wouldn't identify the customers.
Microsoft said it had notified almost 10,000 customers overall that they had either been targeted or compromised by nation-state attacks in the past year, with about 84% of those attacks targeting business customers and the rest launched against personal email accounts.
The majority of nation-state activity spotted by Microsoft originated from Iran, North Korea and Russia, Microsoft said. It includes attacks from a group known as Fancy Bear believed to have ties to Russia's military intelligence and linked to the hack of Democratic emails in 2016.
The company in its findings didn't mention China -- a country usually included with the other three when Western intelligence agencies or security experts discuss state-sponsored cyberattacks. Asked about the omission, Microsoft said China was also an active threat but that its attacks against political groups weren't as voluminous.
AccountGuard, which rolled out last August, is offered in more than two dozen countries, but 95% of the attacks have targeted U.S.-based organizations, a proportion that couldn't be explained by its rate of American customers, Microsoft said.
"Democracy-focused organizations in the United States should be particularly concerned," said Tom Burt, Microsoft's senior vice president of customer security and trust, in a blog post.
"By nature, these organizations are critical to society but have fewer resources to protect against cyberattacks than large enterprises," Mr. Burt said, adding that "the problem is real and unabated."
Microsoft previously said it s threat-intelligence team had tracked hacking attempts to the Kremlin targeting U.S. think tanks, academics, and nongovernmental groups that appear close to American politics or specific 2020 campaigns. Wednesday was the first time it had provided statistics for the phenomenon.
The announcement coincides with the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado, where Microsoft will demonstrate a new software kit intended to let third parties verify election results. The kit, known as ElectionGuard, gives voters a digital tracking code that allows them to follow an encrypted version of theirballot and check on a website that it was counted correctly. The system, which can be layered onto existing voting equipment, would keep actual votes private, but be able to detect whether a vote had been altered, according to Microsoft. U.S. officials have repeatedly said there is no evidence any votes were changed by hackers in 2016.
Microsoft is one of several tech companies that have sought to build or expand election-security offerings since 2016, when Russia interfered in the presidential election to boost then-candidate Donald Trump, according to former special counsel Robert Mueller and the U.S. intelligence community. Russia has denied the allegations.
The tech firms' effort haven't always gone smoothly. Facebook and Twitter have been criticized for acting too slowly or inconsistently in efforts to take down foreign disinformation on their platforms. And Google's archive of political ads, set up last year in response to calls for greater transparency as part of the fallout of Russian interference in 2016, is riddled with errors and delays, The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday.
Some federal offices have also adapted to the new threat. The Department of Homeland Security, Federal Bureau of Investigation and other agencies have formed new teams and marshaled staff to focus on election security.
Despite the efforts, a Wall Street Journal/NBC survey in May found that 73% of American adults said they had just some or no confidence at all in the federal government's ability to prevent foreign countries from interfering in U.S. elections, and 45% said they were fairly worried or very worried about foreign interference.
At a gathering of state election directors this week in Austin, officials voiced frustration over public attitudes that little is being done to safeguard elections.
"The idea that this is not being taken seriously is just a lie," said Bob Kolasky, who leads the DHS's National Risk Management Center, during a briefing to the election directors.
During the same briefing, one state official said President Trump, who last month said he might accept information from foreign governments that was damaging to his rivals, had been an obstacle.
"He is the one who is overseeing your agencies and directing your work, in theory," said Will Senning, Vermont's director of elections, to Mr. Kolasky and other DHS officials in the room. "And you get him with a sarcastic finger wag to (Russian President Vladimir) Putin...that is playing the biggest role right now in the public perception that nothing is being done."
The DHS officials didn't respond to Mr. Senning's remark. Asked about the exchange, Judd Deere, a White House spokesman, said the Trump administration was taking election security seriously and working collaboratively with state and local partners.
Write to Dustin Volz at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
July 17, 2019 21:52 ET (01:52 GMT)
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