Believe me, I’m sympathetic to Russian conspiracy claims.

I grew up reading John le Carre novels. No joke, I first read The Spy Who Came in From The Cold while riding the Moscow Metro back and forth from my dormitory on the outskirts to the classrooms in the center.

When studying in the Soviet Union I learned that everyone was paranoid — and justifiably so! The fire detectors on the ceilings of our dorm were really listening devices, a Hungarian student who hated the Soviets whispered to me.

I couldn’t prove it or disprove it. But based on circumstantial evidence of Soviet spying elsewhere, it certainly could have made sense.

I had random, but minor, brushes with obvious KGB types.

Like the time years later when my wife and I were visiting a refusenik family in Moscow I was friendly with as a student. We entered the wrong entrance to the apartment block, and walked to the fourth floor only to realize we were off by one stairwell. The guy in the apartment was mortified that two foreigners showed up at his door. As we walked back down two thick-necked men from KGB central casting were walking up, and all I remember is the man in the apartment pleading with them, “I don’t know who they are, I don’t know who they are.”

So I start from a base of knowledge and experience that is ready to believe in Russian intrigue.

Which brings me to the DNC email hack.

The attempt to isolate Hillary from the DNC email leak damage is proceeding as predicted: The Russians are coming, The Russians are coming.

There is repeated and increasing focus on the allegation that Russia hacked the DNC and gave the files to Wikileaks in order to help Donald Trump.

I express no view on the technical details because I claim no technical expertise. But based on the accounts I’ve read, the technical view comes down to indications in the data reflecting a connection to Russia. “Metadata” and other such stuff, and use of Russian or Russian related descriptors (if that’s the right term) lingering in the background.

Motherboard elaborates on background on why the hack looks similar to other Russian hacks and methods, and describes the technical aspects as follows, in part, All Signs Point to Russia Being Behind the DNC Hack:

The metadata in the leaked documents are perhaps most revealing: one dumped document was modified using Russian language settings, by a user named “Феликс Эдмундович,” a code name referring to the founder of the Soviet Secret Police, the Cheka, memorialised in a 15-ton iron statue in front of the old KGB headquarters during Soviet times. The original intruders made other errors: one leaked document included hyperlink error messages in Cyrillic, the result of editing the file on a computer with Russian language settings. After this mistake became public, the intruders removed the Cyrillic information from the metadata in the next dump and carefully used made-up user names from different world regions, thereby confirming they had made a mistake in the first round.

I have no  way, based on my own knowledge, to evaluate this technical information.

Fortunately, Andy LoCascio, who maintains Legal Insurrection’s server and has extensive experience with computer security issues, emailed me his thoughts. He scoffs at the popular technical analysis floating around in the media:

The idea that that the Russians were sophisticated enough to hack an email account and then stupid enough to leave meta data in place that implicates them (or any other breadcrumbs) is beyond ludicrous. Thinking that Wikileaks isn’t sophisticated enough to scrub the data is even further beyond the pale of reason.

Hacks of this nature are typically done by very sophisticated individuals who in turn sell that information to the highest bidder. Their only motive is profit.

The media love the Russian angle because it makes another story of carelessness, into something that is more exciting. It is possible that hack came from some individual(s) in Russia, but unlikely that some state sponsored hacking attack would be so sloppy.

Marching high ranking Dems in front of the camera and have them making vague references to how this came from Russia is silly. They will never have any evidence that this is the case.

The other angle is correlation. Trump has said some nice things about Putin; some of Trump’s statements about NATO align with Russian interests; Trump’s campaign manager had a business relationship to people aligned with Putin; and so on.

The problem with these correlations is that they are often based on exaggeration or suppositions as to facts, and confuse correlation with causation.

An article by Jeffrey Carr posted at Medium takes apart these correlation arguments, by focusing on a widely shared post by Josh Marshall of the left-wing Talking Points Memo, Fact-Checking That “Trump & Putin” Thing:

Josh Marshall asked me to substantiate my criticism on Twitter of his use of facts in his TalkingPointsMemo.com article “Trump & Putin. Yes, It’s Really A Thing”.

As background, Josh published the above mentioned post. Mark Cuban called him out for jumping to conclusions. Josh replied that he stuck narrowly to the facts. I disagreed w/ Josh and gave a few reasons why. Josh asked me for specifics.

What follows are seven statements from the TPM article which Josh has claimed are facts. He only got two out of seven correct.

Read the whole thing, here are his conclusions:

A fact is defined as a “true piece of information”. How many of Josh’s facts were true?

  • Trump’s debt load was a Bloomberg estimate, not a fact.
  • Trump is highly reliant upon money from Russia. Open to interpretation, not a fact.
  • Trump Soho took investment money from Russian criminals. Fact.
  • Trump’s campaign manager used to work for Viktor Yanukovych when he was running for Prime Minister of Ukraine. Fact.
  • Putin could put Carter Page, Trump’s foreign policy advisor, out of business at any time. Not only not a fact, but untrue and ridiculous on its face.
  • Putin has aligned all state-controlled media behind Trump. False.
  • The Trump Camp only cared about softening the platform on arming Ukraine. False.

For the record, I despise Donald Trump. I can’t imagine a worse candidate for President and I’m shocked and appalled that he is the Republican nominee. However, there’s no need to invent Russian conspiracies to make the Trump boogeyman appear worse than he is.

Carr had an earlier post in June, before Marshall’s viral hypothesis, The DNC Breach and the Hijacking of Common Sense:

Who Is Responsible?

The person or persons responsible are unknown, but let’s assume that CrowdStrike is correct and the responsible party are Russian hackers employed by one or more of Russia’s intelligence services. They used APT28 malware developed and maintained by a Russian lab.

Or — the DNC was breached by a Russian-speaking hacker (Guccifer 2.0?) who is not employed by the Russian intelligence services but has access to the APT28 malware.

Or — the DNC was breached by a Russian hacker who does contract work for the FSB when he isn’t running his own hacker-for-hire business for Russian oligarchs and Swiss lawyers.

Or — the DNC was breached by multiple actors including all of the above.

Attribution is hard enough without cybersecurity companies picking the evidence they need to support the conclusion that they want with threat actor models that are completely devoid of common sense. We can do better.

UPDATED 6/21/16

Here’s a perfect example of how flawed attribution by technical indicators is. Bloomberg reported that the initial attribution of the Bangladesh Central Bank cyber heist to North Korean hackers due to similarity to the malware used against Sony Pictures Entertainment in 2014, may actually be the work of Russian hackers.

So did the Russians to it, and do it to help Trump?

I don’t know, maybe it was the Chinese trying to make it look like the Russians.

What I do know, is that it’s politically convenient to blame the Russians, as it distracts from the content of the communications, which are tearing the Democratic Party apart.

[Featured Image, “Emergency” scene from The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming]