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CIA/FBI/NSA Says Russia’s Cyber Activity Efforts Were Anti-Clinton And Also Anti-Fracking

By Dan Tsubouchi

Yesterday’s CIA/FBI/NSA report clearly noted the primary Russian cyber attack was on the hacking and leaking of actual emails.  But the report also reminded that cyber risks come from much more than hacking and leaking actual emails.  Or more than our primary focus for energy – a cyber sabotage of energy infrastructure like a refinery, pipeline, or an electricity grid.  Or more than forcing a computer system off line to cause service disruptions of a service.  Rather the report reminded that cyber risks also include providing false/misleading/slanted “content” from programming, media, social posting, etc.  Basically the good old days of disinformation are back, but spread in today’s connected world and with a purpose/objective in mind.

The purpose of our blogs and our separately published weekly Energy Tidbits report is to help our Stream partners with perspective on events/developments impacting energy and oil and gas.  They are normally data driven.  Today’s blog is different than normal.  It doesn’t’ have specific data on oil production, or OPEC quotas, or emissions. So it may not seem to be as relevant to oil and gas.  But we think it is because it speaks to how “content” is being used to try to impact political or a populist change, which we have all seen has a direct and significant impact on oil and gas.  The big surprises for global markets and oil and gas in the past year were changes that markets did not expect – Brexit and a Trump win.  And also in Canada with big impact on oil and gas from the NDP majority win in Alberta and the Liberal majority win in Canada.

Our Energy Tidbits haven’t focused on Russia as a potential cyber threat to the US energy, but the CIA/FBI/NSA report said Russia had a cyber activity campaign against Clinton and the report also noted some lesser efforts by Russia to support the anti-fracking movement against the US E&P sector.  It was overlooked on the major media reporting that the oil and gas sector got a shout out in the Friday afternoon Office of the Director of National Intelligence publicly released declassified report “Background to “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections”: The Analytic Process and Cyber Incident Attribution[LINK].   This report was drafted and coordinated among the CIA, FBI and NSA.

We recommend reading this report as it isn’t just a one shot anti-Clinton cyber event, but rather speaks to a process using cyber tools, in particular the Russian use of “content” providers.  It is especially significant as the CIA/FBI/NSA sees Russia using its US experience as a template for future cyber efforts.  The stark contrasts for policies, including on energy, from winners and losers in governments isn’t limited to the US. But there is no question that a Trump election will have a dramatically different impact on oil and gas than would have been seen under Clinton.

Understandably, the media coverage was all on the anti Clinton cyber attacks given the high confidence judgements by the  CIA, FBI and NSA on Russia’s guilt.   The key conclusion was “We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump. We have high confidence in these judgments.

Perhaps the more significant perspective is the report highlighting that the cyber activity isn’t just leaking emails, rather it a process of providing “content”, saying “Moscow’s influence campaign followed a Russian messaging strategy that blends covert intelligence operations—such as cyber activity—with overt efforts by Russian Government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media users or “trolls.” Russia, like its Soviet predecessor, has a history of conducting covert influence campaigns focused on US presidential elections that have used intelligence officers and agents and press placements to disparage candidates perceived as hostile to the Kremlin”.

This is where Russia’s support for the anti-fracking movement comes into play. In “Annex A: Russia — Kremlin’s TV Seeks To Influence Politics, Fuel Discontent in US*”, the report highlights “RT America TV, a Kremlin-financed channel operated from within the United States” and how RT America runs programming to support Russia’s priorities including energy.  It was interesting that the agencies discuss RT America’s efforts in messaging on Syria and other Russian involvement areas, and also includes anti-fracking saying “RT broadcasts support for other Russian interests in areas such as foreign and energy policy.  RT runs anti-fracking programming, highlighting environmental issues and the impacts on public health. This is likely reflective of the Russian Government’s concern about the impact of fracking and US natural gas production on the global energy market and the potential challenges to Gazprom’s profitability”.

The CIA/FBI/NSA says the Russian cyber activity process was in providing “content” to support the anti-fracking movement. In this case, there is already a lot of “content” provided by major motion pictures (ie. Matt Damon’s 2012 Promised Land movie), a collection of Hollywood types, and the Democrats in particular Bernie Sanders.  Its hard to see if RT America TV has had any real impact.

We still worry that cyber attacks on energy infrastructure (refineries, pipelines, petrochemical plants, gas plants) is an increasing risk factor.  However, we are relieved that there wasn’t any suggestion of any Russian cyber actions against energy infrastructure.  It would be scary to think of a tit for tat if energy infrastructure were ever targeted.

The reason for our blog is that the CIA/FBI/NSA report is a good reminder that cyber activity risk isn’t just leaking real emails.  Rather it is also process of providing “content” to effect political or populist change that drives policy change. It is a timely reminder given the populist change seen in 2016 and with key events on the horizon around the world and for oil and gas in Canada such as the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion or Keystone XL, clean power plans, carbon taxes, etc.  In particular, the anti-oil pipeline movement is expected to raise in attention in BC for Trans Mountain, especially with the upcoming May BC elections and following the success of the anti-Dakota Access Pipeline movement in forcing the stop of construction in progress of an approved pipeline

Industry can always argue (and vice versa) that a lot of anti-industry content is disinformation, slanted or inaccurate, but in today’s world, it is content. Content gets moved to a wide audience quickly. And this isn’t just from social media, or as the CIA/FBI/NSA says “state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media users or “trolls”.  It is also from mainstream media, who are hungry to provide news quickly, which in turn gets picked up by others. Mainstream media is not like the Walter Cronkite days.  If K’ung FuTzu (Confucius) was writing today, he wouldn’t say “one man tells a lie, many repeat it as the truth”, he would probably say “I saw it on the internet so it must be true, please forward”.   The CIA/FBI/NSA report was about Clinton, it reminds us that content plays a role in driving political change and therefore policy change, including on energy.