Washington — It was just before noon in Moscow on March 10, 2016, when the first volley of malicious messages hit the Hillary Clinton campaign.
The first 29 phishing emails were almost all misfires. Addressed to people who worked for Clinton during her first presidential run, the messages bounced back untouched.
Within nine days, some of the campaign’s most consequential secrets would be in the hackers’ hands, part of a massive operation aimed at vacuuming up millions of messages from thousands of inboxes across the world.
An Associated Press investigation into the digital break-ins that disrupted the US presidential contest has sketched out an anatomy of the hack that led to months of damaging disclosures about the Democratic Party’s nominee. It wasn’t just a few aides that the hackers went after; it was an all-out blitz across the Democratic Party. They tried to compromise Clinton’s inner circle and more than 130 party employees, supporters and contractors.
While US intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia was behind the email thefts, the AP drew on forensic data to report Thursday that the hackers known as Fancy Bear were closely aligned with the interests of the Russian government.
The AP’s reconstruction— based on a database of 19,000 malicious links recently shared by cybersecurity firm Secureworks — shows how the hackers worked their way around the Clinton campaign’s top-of-the-line digital security to steal chairman John Podesta’s emails in March 2016.
It also helps explain how a Russian-linked intermediary could boast to a Trump policy adviser, a month later, that the Kremlin had “thousands of emails” worth of dirt on Clinton.
The rogue messages that first flew across the internet March 10 were dressed up to look like they came from Google, the company that provided the Clinton campaign’s email infrastructure. The messages urged users to boost their security or change their passwords while in fact steering them toward decoy websites designed to collect their credentials.
One of the first people targeted was Rahul Sreenivasan, who had worked as a Clinton organizer in Texas in 2008 — his first paid job in politics. Sreenivasan, now a legislative staffer in Austin, was dumbfounded when told by the AP that hackers had tried to break into his 2008 email — an address he said had been dead for nearly a decade.
“They probably crawled the internet for this stuff,” he said.
Almost everyone else targeted in the initial wave was, like Sreenivasan, a 2008 staffer whose defunct email address had somehow lingered online.
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