The computing group also revealed details of hacking attempts emanating from China and Iran © Bloomberg/AP

Russian government hackers who targeted the US Democratic party in 2016 have mounted increasingly sophisticated attacks on both Democrats and Republicans during the current presidential race, Microsoft said on Thursday.

The disclosure from the computing company also included details of hacking attempts by a group operating in China, which Microsoft said had targeted people associated with Joe Biden, and attacks originating from Iran on people linked to Donald Trump’s campaign.

Microsoft said a Russian intelligence unit that the US has blamed for the 2016 hack of the Democratic National Committee had been highly active since September 2019, and was using more complex methods than it did four years ago.

The company said its investigation found attacks on US-based consultants serving both parties and that the unit had used “new reconnaissance tools and new techniques to obfuscate their operations”. 

The various attacks on people associated with Mr Trump and Mr Biden’s campaigns were unsuccessful, Microsoft said.

The announcement followed warnings in recent weeks by Trump administration officials that foreign actors were seeking to interfere in the 2020 presidential election, but differed in some respects about the nature of the threat.

Line chart showing how Trump and Biden are doing in the US national polls

In August, a top US intelligence official said China had preferred that Mr Trump lose his bid for re-election in November. However, Microsoft said a Chinese group called Zirconium had targeted Mr Biden’s campaign through the personal email accounts of people associated with his election bid.

An unnamed “prominent individual” formerly associated with Mr Trump’s administration was also targeted by the Chinese group, Microsoft said.

It said Iranian hackers had targeted the accounts of Trump administration and Trump campaign officials.

Thea McDonald, a Trump campaign spokesperson, said: “We work closely with our partners, Microsoft and others, to mitigate these threats. We take cyber security very seriously and do not publicly comment on our efforts.”

A Biden campaign spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Trump vs Biden: who is leading the 2020 election polls?

Use the FT’s interactive calculator to see which states matter most in winning the presidency

Christopher Krebs, the director of the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, said Microsoft’s disclosures were “consistent with earlier statements by the intelligence community on a range of malicious cyber activities targeting the 2020 campaign”.

He said that none of the attacks detected by Microsoft had targeted people “involved in maintaining or operating voting infrastructure and there was no identified impact on election systems”.

Microsoft’s announcement came a day after revelations that a US government whistleblower had alleged officials at the Department of Homeland Security sought to censor reports warning of the threat of Russian election interference. DHS has denied the allegations.

Democratic lawmakers have accused the Trump administration of seeking to play down foreign meddling that could aid Mr Trump’s re-election. Last month, John Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence, said he would no longer provide in-person briefings about election security to Congress, citing leaks.

Earlier on Thursday, the Department of Justice indicted a Russian national who was allegedly involved in US election meddling on charges that he sought to steal the identities of Americans in order to open bank and cryptocurrency accounts in their names.

The Treasury department also imposed sanctions on a Ukrainian politician who has worked with Mr Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, to dig up and publish potentially damaging information about Mr Biden. Treasury said the politician was “an active Russian agent”.

Get alerts on US presidential election 2020 when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article