As Russian hackers affiliated with the Fancy Bear cyber-spying unit were attempting to break into the Gmail accounts of “scores of U.S. officials” in recent years, the FBI failed to notify almost any of them that they were being targeted, the Associated Press reported on Sunday.
Per the AP, in interviews with 80 Fancy Bear targets, just two said the FBI had approached them to say they were vulnerable to ongoing Russian attempts to break into their email accounts. The failure to notify all of the potential Fancy Bear targets appeared to be at least partially related to the large number of attacks, with a senior FBI official speaking on the condition of anonymity telling the news agency, “It’s a matter of triaging to the best of our ability the volume of the targets who are out there.”
Fancy Bear primarily attempted to penetrate the email systems by sending messages with malicious links that could recover account information from the targets. According to an AP analysis of data provided by cybersecurity firm Secureworks which included over 500 “U.S.-based people or groups,” “out of 312 U.S. military and government figures targeted by Fancy Bear, 131 clicked the links sent to them.”
Many of the targets appear to be former military or intelligence officials who have since retired, meaning the FBI may have determined contacting them was unnecessary from a national security perspective. However, some of the accounts potentially dated back to when the persons involved held active government positions with access to classified data; information in the accounts could also potentially reveal weak points on other targets.
As the AP noted, sources said when Fancy Bear allegedly targeted Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, FBI agents did visit her headquarters but offered “little more than generic security tips the campaign had already put into practice and refused to say who they thought was behind the attempted intrusions.” The FBI also did not dig very deeply into DCLeaks, an alleged Fancy Bear front which has published numerous leaks of government officials’ email accounts.
“It’s absolutely not OK for them to use an excuse that there’s too much data,” former Office of the Director of National Intelligence senior administrator Charles Sowell told the AP. “Would that hold water if there were a serial killer investigation, and people were calling in tips left and right, and they were holding up their hands and saying, ‘It’s too much’? That’s ridiculous.”
The scope of Russian cyber efforts to meddle in U.S. affairs is still being determined by investigators; however, hackers with some kind of connection to the Kremlin had attempted to break into election systems in dozens of states in 2016 as part of what appeared to be a probe of their vulnerability. Russian actors also flooded major U.S. sites like Facebook, Twitter and Google with disinformation and propaganda in what looked an awful lot like an attempt to help Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, though it’s not totally clear how effective those efforts were or to what degree they really contributed to Trump’s eventual victory.