Officials initially did not disclose the fact that Obama’s emails had been compromised, and it is still unclear what data was stolen. According to a report in The New York Times, the hack was in fact “more intrusive and worrisome” than the White House first acknowledged.
Obama’s emails hacked: Unclassified network compromised
Despite the fact that emails were compromised, the hackers did not manage to access the secure servers which manage classified emails and information. The emails that they were able to read were part of unclassified correspondence with people from the White House that the President maintains, or maintained, frequent contact with.
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Officials have not revealed just how many emails have been seen by the hackers, but the hack has been taken very seriously since it was discovered last October. Sources claim that the cyber attack was discussed on an almost daily basis in the weeks following the attack.
“This has been one of the most sophisticated actors we’ve seen,” one senior insider said, while another official claimed that “it’s the Russian angle to this that’s particularly worrisome.” The hack occurred at a time of increased tensions with Russia due to the annexation of Crimea and the ongoing crisi in Ukraine.
White House officials operate on two separate networks
Although the hack is now common knowledge, officials maintain that no classified information was leaked. Many White House officials have two computers, one which is part of the “highly secure classified network” and another one which connects to the world wide web using an unclassified network.
It is encouraging that such security measures are in place, although it must be said that a great deal of sensitive data is still passed back and forth over that unclassified network. Such data includes “schedules, email exchanges with ambassadors and diplomats, discussions of pending personnel moves and legislation, and, inevitably, some debate about policy.”
Now it appears that the same group of hackers may have been responsible for attacking the unclassified email system at the State Department. The Pentagon’s unclassified network was also hit by Russian hackers, and they were later removed, according to Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter. It is not yet clear whether there is any connection between the three attacks.
No official announcement on Russian responsibility
So far the White House has not officially blamed Russia for what the New York Times calls a “complex and artful intrusion into the government.” Last year officials pointed the finger at North Korea in the aftermath of the Sony Pictures Entertainment hack, but in this latest case federal investigators decided that it was best to keep their cards close to their chest, in order to avoid letting the Russians know exactly what has been learned about their methods.
In the wake of the attack a serious debate has been underway among officials as to what extent it is possible to protect the electronic presence of the president from cyber attacks, particularly when it extends beyond the highly secure classified network at the White House.
Cyber warfare is an increasing threat and at this point in time it would appear that the U.S. and its allies are lagging behind countries such as China and Russia when it comes to offensive cyber capabilities. The Chinese are better known for their activities in stealing commercial information, but the Russians seem more focused on specific targets, which are sometimes political.
Hybrid warfare a distinct possibility
Russian hackers have proved to be better at hiding evidence of their activities, and the decline in relations between Washington and Moscow raises suspicions that the Kremlin may be stepping up its cyber warfare activities, as well as in its traditional military. Military drills and movements near to NATO-controlled airspace have raised tensions in Eastern Europe to levels not seen since the Cold War.
The hacking of President Obama’s emails would appear to be just another way in which Russia is gearing up for a conflict, with Vladimir Putin reminding the world that his country is ready for war. Despite the effects of U.S. and European Union sanctions on Russia’s economy, Putin continues to find innovative ways to cause mischief in the international arena.
It would appear that cyber warfare is not going to end anytime soon, and U.S. officials should therefore place greater emphasis on protecting digital information from prying eyes. Although there is no suggestion that the classified systems at the White House have been breached, there should be protocols in place to protect any information related to the president and sensitive information sent between him and his contacts.