Shadow Brokers NSA leak: this too could be a form of Russian propaganda, says expert

As the Western world’s information security crowd grapples with the implication of the Shadow Brokers leaks, one researcher has suggested that Edward Snowden’s role in interpreting the leaks is itself part of Russia’s information war against the US.

Associate Professor Matthew Sussex from the Australian National University studies Russian foreign security policy, with a focus on new trends in conflict “especially in ‘hybrid’ warfare and in the evolution of propaganda”.

The handling of the Shadow Brokers leaks of what are thought to be NSA spying tools points to the possibility of a Russian information war strategy, Sussex says.

Snowden on a pedestal 

The Shadow Brokers group initially contacted media and information security experts about the leaks, with the hacking group’s tweet plans for an auction of them to the public.

Once awareness of the leaks entered the news cycle, the Twitter account of Edward Snowden broke its silence of more than a week with a tweetstorm giving context on the nature of the NSA’s exploits. In it, Snowden concluded that the leak was intended to “influence the calculus of decision-makers wondering how sharply to respond to the DNC hacks.”

The DNC hacks, a cache of hacked emails from the Democratic Party, were published just before the beginning of the Democratic Convention in July.

They contained some embarrassing revelations – and some mundane ones – that forced resignations in the party. Their contents were immediately seized on by on partisans who used them as the basis for a wave of criticism of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Coming against the backdrop a sustained effort by Russian online propaganda to shape perceptions within the US, the role of the ex-NSA worker in providing context for the leaks may be a case of “hybrid war” strategy, said Sussex.

Russia engages in ‘shotgun’ propaganda, which is sprayed to see what hits. And then if something hits, it can be exploited,” said Sussex.

“When you want to do ‘hybrid war’, you link the propaganda to other things,” he said.

“For example, while we don’t know for sure, it would be in Russia’s interests to claim credit for the Shadow Brokers hacks [through Snowden’s tweets],” he said.

Snowden’s Twitter activity in the period before the leaks has spurred some doubts about whether he himself is doing the tweeting.

With Snowden ensconced in Moscow since 2013, it would be impossible to confirm that he has full control of his Twitter account or public appearance. Although when he appears live by video link he is typically consistent in his remarks on security, privacy and civil liberties.

There are other potential linkages between Russian information war and the Shadow Brokers leak.

For example, once the leaks became public, WikiLeaks tweeted it has possession of the files.

Asked if WikiLeaks could be an “instrument” of Russia when it comes to its information warfare goals, whether wittingly or unwittingly, Sussex said “yes”.

He noted that it didn’t matter whether WikiLeaks was aware or unaware of how it was being used by Russia as “the effect is largely the same”.

Drawing a line between the Shadow Brokers leaks and Russia highlights the sense of power and leverage Russia has over the West, he said.

Injecting the tech community in the West, and in the US in particular, with anti-Western views on NSA intelligence and the US government helps to cause friction and undermine cohesion between the government, the public and industry.

Robert Litt, general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, told New York Magazine that Snowden’s disclosures have had “a radicalising effect in the private sector”.

“The technology and communications community has moved from a position of willingness to cooperate … to an attitude that ranges from neutrality to outright hostility, which is an extremely bad thing.”

Sowing division within society outside of Russia is a broader theme of that nation’s information war strategy, which has focused, for example, on dividing the European Union by giving diplomatic clout, media attention and even funding to anti-EU parties across the continent. This in turn helps undermine the trade bloc, which draws political strength from shared economic and social activity. That in turn makes the bloc’s members less willing to uphold sanctions against Russia, for example over its annexation of Crimea.

This comes as US Republican candidate Donald Trump has been revealed to have a number of ties to Russia – including a foreign policy vision for Eastern Europe that conforms closely to Moscow’s geopolitical views.

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