Technology & Science

4 Microsoft accounts breached in hack targeting U.S. presidential election

Microsoft said Friday that hackers linked to the Iranian government targeted a U.S. presidential campaign, as well as government officials, media targets and prominent expatriate Iranians.

Company says hackers linked to Iran government tried to tamper with 241 accounts

Microsoft says hackers successfully got into four customer accounts over a 30-day period between August and September. (Ted S. Warren/The Associated Press)

Microsoft said Friday that hackers linked to the Iranian government targeted a U.S. presidential campaign, and government officials, media targets and prominent expatriate Iranians.

Overall, the hackers attempted to penetrate 241 Microsoft customer accounts — four successfully — though none of those penetrated was associated with presidential campaigns or current or past U.S. officials, Microsoft said. A company spokesperson declined to identify those targeted, citing customer privacy.

The announcement is the latest sign that foreign governments are looking for ways to potentially disrupt the 2020 presidential election. U.S. intelligence officials have sounded the alarm about the risks for months.

Russia's hacking of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Clinton campaign, as well as the subsequent leaks of emails during the 2016 election roiled the DNC, hurt the Clinton campaign and was a focal point in special counsel Robert Mueller's probe.

Foreign hackers have long targeted U.S. government and politicians, generally with little notice. But the disruption caused by Russia's attack has heightened awareness and prompted fears that other nations will try to follow Russia's example. Iran in particular could have a stake in the outcome of the U.S. election after President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from a nuclear agreement and stepped up sanctions against the country.

"The Russians came after us and our election system in 2016 and they paid virtually no price for that activity," said Jamil N. Jaffer, director of the national security law and policy program at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Va., and former chief counsel of the Senate foreign relations committee. "It's not surprising that China now more aggressively and maybe the Iranians are getting in that game. Why not?"

Trying to 'undermine' democracy

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said it was working with Microsoft to "assess and mitigate impacts." Chris Krebs, director of the department's cybersecurity and infrastructure security agency, said much of the activity is likely "run-of-the-mill" foreign intelligence service work.

But, "Microsoft's claims that a presidential campaign was targeted is yet more evidence that our adversaries are looking to undermine our democratic institutions," Krebs said.

In a blog post released Friday, Microsoft's Tom Burt, corporate vice-president for customer security and trust, said the owners of four accounts that were compromised have been notified. The company would not identify those accounts.

The attacks by a group Microsoft calls Phosphorous occurred during a 30-day period between August and September.

Burt said the Iranian hackers used password reset and account recovery features to try to take over accounts. For example, they gathered phone numbers belonging to targets to help with a password reset. In other cases, they tried to get into secondary email accounts that might be linked to the Microsoft account to gain access via a verification email.

The hackers researched their targets, making more than 2,700 attempts to identify emails belonging to a specific Microsoft customer. A spokesperson declined to provide more details.

The company has previously taken legal steps to combat Iran-linked hackers, suing them in federal court so it could take control of websites used to conduct hacking operations and to stop attacks.

Presidential candidates Kamala Harris, pictured here, Sen. Michael Bennet, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock were not targeted in the hacking scheme. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

On Friday, Tim Murtaugh, spokesperson for Trump's 2020 re-election campaign, said there was "no indication that any of our campaign infrastructure was targeted."

The campaigns of Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Michael Bennet, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock also said they had not been targeted. A campaign aide for Sen. Bernie Sanders said the campaign doesn't comment on matters of technical security.

Republican National Committee (RNC) spokesperson Blair Ellis said the RNC is "constantly working to stay ahead of emerging threats."

Meanwhile, the DNC sent an alert out to campaigns Friday, warning them about the Iran-linked hacking group's targeting of Microsoft accounts belonging to "journalists, politicians and at least one presidential campaign."

The DNC has taken several steps to improve the party's cybersecurity since 2016. The most public move was the hiring of Bob Lord, a veteran of Silicon Valley cybersecurity with stints at Yahoo, Twitter, AOL and Netscape, to serve as its cybersecurity chief.

Lord on Friday declined to provide details on the hacking efforts, deferring to Microsoft. He has worked to improve security protocols for DNC staff, state parties and campaigns with access to the central voter file that DNC maintains.

In July, Microsoft announced that it had detected more than 740 infiltration attempts by nation-state actors in the past year targeting U.S.-based political parties, campaigns and other democracy-focused organizations including think-tanks and other non-profits.

The company declined to name or further characterize the targets or the actors. It said at the time that such targeting had similarly occurred in the early stages of the 2016 and 2018 elections.

A memo prepared by the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI was sent to state election officials this week outlining possible ways Russia could seek to interfere in the 2020 elections by discouraging voters or utilizing voter suppression tactics.

The document, which was dated Thursday and reviewed by The Associated Press, outlines a few possible scenarios for state and local election officials to be aware of. Those include the use of social media to exacerbate divisions within political parties during state primaries and the hacking of election websites to spread misinformation on voting processes or to alter voter registration data.