This has become the era where the internet is widely used for the purpose of cyber reconnaissance/espionage/corruption by political parties. To put in layman’s terms, the political leg pulling, posturing and deviance via cyber leaks have become quite common today. Be it WikiLeaks, Yahoo hacks at the time of US National election or any cyber espionage; our curiosity to know the surreptitious secret about famous political figures leads us to believe every leak that goes viral without investigating further to establish the accuracy of the news. We barely think twice whether the leaked news put forward by any hacker is based on facts or whether influential parties are manipulating it for some ill-defined or illicit purpose. Consequently, the public is served up misinformation and half truths and sometimes even outright lies.

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The Citizen Labs’ latest report, Tainted Leaks: Disinformation and Phishing with a Russian Nexus, shows that we as an audience predominantly possess the nature of being naive and gullible when it comes to evaluating any leak that hits our screen or airwaves. The report expounds some of the latest leaks generated by cyber infiltration that has gained traction or even gone viral. However, these were nothing more than misinformation designed to distract and even detract and render the recipient of the news misguided. 

These leaks were purposefully publicized with the sole aim to defame leading personalities who were combating government corruption. These preys spread across 39 nations across the globe, affecting government, agencies, industrial figures, security forces, analysts and prominent people from the civil society. Moreover, the targets were the media fraternity including journalists, media moguls, activists and few other highly influential personalities.

As per the report’s indication, the civil society holds the record of being the second most targeted party after the government. The director of Citizen Lab has also corroborated this by saying, “For many powerful elites, a vibrant civil society is an antithesis to their corrupt aims.”

The research kicked off with a widespread phishing and misinformation maneuver associated with Russia. This operation was intended to offer as proof that it was made by manipulating the documents stolen from leading journalists and used to tamper them before their original release to the media. The name of this misleading indoctrination given by Citizen Lab is “Tainted Leaks.”

The American Journalist David Satter was the first to fall victim or patient zero if you will. He fell victim to the cyber espionage back in October 2016 by an implanted phishing attack.  This Journalist is widely known for incriminating Intelligence Service of Russia. Back in September 1999, he levied accusations against the government for the alleged bombing in the apartment of Buynaksk, Volgodonsk, and Moscow, causing the death of 293 people. The misfortunate hit Sattar when he mistakenly gave his password to a credential hacking website. Consequently, he had to face the aftermath of his mistake that was in the form of having his emails stolen and having them leaked to the public by a Russian-sponsored cyber hacking group known as CyberBerkut.

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Before leaking the emails, a handful of Satter’s emails were cunningly altered to give an impression that Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption activist, one of the leading opposition personality had been receiving the receipt of foreign funding. Moreover, these tainted leaks were aimed to stigmatize the reports that spoke about the corruption of the close allies of Russian President, Vladimir Putin. The dubious timings show “advance knowledge of the publication of an upcoming piece of investigative journalism concerning senior Russian officials and businessmen.”

One of the implanted sentences in the leaked emails was; “Besides, on October 24-25, Vedomosti columnist Elena Vinogradova will publish an article about Moscow Oblast issues in which senior Russian officials and businessmen close to Putin will be mentioned.”  This addition brings light to the acknowledgment of the mass-surveillance operation that is underway against both the Vinogradova and Vedomosti.

Following this patient zero, an infinite number of preys that were discussed in the Citizen Lab report were found to be journalists or those associated with civil society. Most of these preys were found working with the Russian language centers like “Slon/Republic, Vedomosti, Novaya Gazeta, and the BBC Russian Service.”

Among the strategies used, there was a tactic of appending the journalists’ name to tainted emails in a bid to incriminate them in the fabricated program; Painting their picture as agents lining their pockets from foreign funding and working to defame the Russian government. In addition to this, there was another tactic, that is to eliminate the name of Radio Liberty, one of the Russian-language outlets. This is to mislead the masses with the presence of global conspiracy against  Kremlin.

“The operators modified the document’s scope in an attempt to create the appearance of a widespread media campaign,” Citizen Lab wrote. “They did this by removing or modifying mentions of Radio Liberty throughout the document.”

This tainted stuff was soon propagated across  Russian newly operated agencies/outlets that included Sputnik Radio and RIA Novosti. And then these leaks were used as potential evidence against CIA’s operation to stir up a color revolution not dissimilar to the “Yellow Revolution of 1986 in Philippine.”

Furthermore, the report divulged the fact that apart from civil society and the government, there are quite an extensive list of targets that hit United Nation members, former senior director of the US National Security Council, a former officer of the US defence agency, some top level members of oil, mining, gas and finance industries of old SU States.

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Inevitably, these campaigns would continue to grow at lightning speed as the increase in data stealing is exponentially gaining a boost. This all is detailed in the report presented by Citizen Lab and according to Deibert, “Indeed, we could be on the cusp of a new era of superpower-enabled, digital disinformation.” He further added, “The public’s faith in media (which is already very low), and the ability of civil society to do its job effectively, will both invariably suffer as collateral damage.”

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Jahanzaib Hassan