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Microsoft Promotes Russia Scare To Gain Insider Access To Campaign Information

Published: August 21, 2018
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The software behemoth Microsoft Corp wants to gain an insider view on candidates and election campaigns at the federal, state and local level. The Seattle based company now offers a "special cybersecurity protection" to those candidates and campaigns that use its Office 365, Outlock or  Hotmail cloud services. Those who take up the offer will put their emails, internal strategy papers and financial records onto Microsoft owned and administrated servers where Microsoft personal will have a special eye on them. 

The company hopes that a large amount of such data will enable it "to collect critical feedback" into developing political dangers and will allow it to "to address the specific needs of eligible organizations". This could, for example, be done by directing or withholding campaign contributions in line with its corporate interests. The acquired material will also be of interest to various national intelligence agencies and might be of value for future political trades.

Microsoft's new data acquisition path for its corporate intelligence has its own marketing campaign. This uses the well established bogeyman of the "Russian threat".

Microsoft engineers scanned the 220 million internet domain names to find a few domains that seem to have some similarities with know product names or known institutional names. The search found my-iri.org, hudsonorg-my-sharepoint.com, senate.group, adfs-senate.services, adfs-senate.email and office365-onedrive.com. These names, Microsoft claims, could potentially be mistaken for the names of known entities and could thus be used for login spoofing or email fishing campaigns.

Microsoft claimed that these domain names were trademark infringements of its office product, as well as of the conservative Hudson Institute, the International Republican Institute and the U.S. Senate. A judge agreed and allowed the company to seize the domain names. They now redirect to Microsoft honeypot servers. Any attempt to access them will be logged.

Its public relation department held a press conference and managed to spin a scare story of a "Russian threat" around the seized domain names. It did not provide any evidence or explanation how the seized domain names might or might not be related to "Russia". Journalists were pointed to a blog post by Microsoft's president which includes some mumble about "Russia" and "elections" they could pick for quotes. After apparently scaring the bejesus out of the stenographing scribes, the company made sure to emphasize the offer that, if taken up, will give its strategic intelligence department valuable internal insights into election campaigns.

Major U.S. news sites swallowed the bait, hook, line and sinker. The Washington Postheadlines:

Microsoft says it has found a Russian operation targeting U.S. political institutions

A group affiliated with the Russian government created phony versions of six websites — including some related to public policy and to the U.S. Senate — with the apparent goal of hacking into the computers of people who were tricked into visiting, according to Microsoft, which said Monday night that it discovered and disabled the fake sites. The effort by the notorious APT28 hacking group, which has been publicly linked to a Russian intelligence agency and actively interfered in the 2016 presidential election, underscores the aggressive role Russian operatives are playing ahead of the midterm congressional elections in the United States. 
...
Microsoft’s Digital Crimes Unit, which is responsible for the company’s response to email phishing schemes, took the lead role in finding and disabling the sites, and the company is launching an effort to provide expanded cybersecurity protection for campaigns and election agencies that use Microsoft products. 
...
Microsoft said Monday that it had found no evidence that the fake sites it recently discovered were used in attacks, but fake sites can carry malware that automatically loads onto the computers of unsuspecting visitors. 
...
After discovering the sites recently, Microsoft said, it sought to obtain a court order to transfer the domain names to its own servers, ... The cases have been brought under trademark infringement ...
...
Microsoft did not explicitly blame the Russian intelligence agency for the attack announced Monday but it did cite Russia’s government and named APT28 and its pseudonyms, Strontium and Fancy Bear.

At the end of the piece the Washington Post again points to the Microsoft campaign fleecing offer:

Starting today, Microsoft AccountGuard is open to all current candidates for federal, state and local office in the United States and their campaigns; the campaign organizations of all sitting members of Congress; national and state party committees; technology vendors who primarily serve campaigns and committees; and certain nonprofit organizations and nongovernmental organizations. Microsoft AccountGuard is offered free of charge. Organizations must be using Office 365 to register.

Microsoft AccountGuard has three core offerings:

  • Unified threat detection and notification across accounts

Threat detection and notification will initially be available only for Microsoft services including Office 365, Outlook.com and Hotmail.

  • Security guidance and ongoing education

In-depth live sessions will be modeled after the highly successful, multi-day sessions for both parties’ national campaign committees and their partners which we recently held in Washington, D.C.

  • Early adopter opportunities

In addition to being among the first to deploy the latest technology, this aspect of Microsoft AccountGuard will enable us to collect critical feedback and rapidly evolve security to address the specific needs of eligible organizations.

All internet companies that offer services "free of charge" will use the data they acquire through these services for their own needs. They might use it to sell advertisements, to train 'artificial intelligence' networks they can resell, or to get insight into issues that might effect their bottom line.

There is no free lunch.

Those candidates or campaigns that fall for the evidence free "Russian threat" and take up Microsoft's offer will put their data into the hands of way more dangerous organizations. While Microsoft has its main seat outside of the Surveillance Valley, the Snowdon documents, published in 2013, show that it was and is a major part of it:

  • Microsoft helped the NSA to circumvent its encryption to address concerns that the agency would be unable to intercept web chats on the new Outlook.com portal;
  • The agency already had pre-encryption stage access to email on Outlook.com, including Hotmail;
  • The company worked with the FBI this year to allow the NSA easier access via Prism to its cloud storage service SkyDrive, which now has more than 250 million users worldwide;
  • Microsoft also worked with the FBI's Data Intercept Unit to "understand" potential issues with a feature in Outlook.com that allows users to create email aliases;
  • In July last year, nine months after Microsoft bought Skype, the NSA boasted that a new capability had tripled the amount of Skype video calls being collected through Prism;
  • Material collected through Prism is routinely shared with the FBI and CIA, with one NSA document describing the program as a "team sport".

In 2016 the partisan FBI leadership used the fairytales in the Steele dossier to get a FISA wiretap on people involved in the campaign of Donald Trump. Had the Trump campaign joined a program similar to Microsoft's new AccountGuard, the FBI would not have needed to take such complicated steps. It would have had direct access to the briefings, calenders and emails shared within the campaign. Such insight potentially would have enabled it to change the outcome of the election.

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