The personal e-mail server that Hillary Rodham Clinton used was repeatedly subject to hacking attempts from users in China, South Korea and Germany in 2014, the Associated Press reported Wednesday. Which seems as though it confirms some of the worst fears of Clinton's detractors: an insecure system, with foreign agents peeking in.
But to Peter Fidler, president of the tech firm WCA Technologies in New York, the story is much less alarming.
"It's not unusual at all" that there would be attempts to hack into her server, Fidler said when we spoke with him by phone on Thursday. "Basically what it means -- a hacking attempt [is] they'll try to log in as admin, sysadmin, administrator ... they'll try many different types of names and not give up. We used to see that a lot. We would capture all these things and then block entire countries."
In other words, that someone from China tried to hack into Clinton's server doesn't mean 1) that they were targeting Clinton specifically, 2) that they were agents of the Chinese government, or 3) that they were actually able to access information.
Hackers will often "port scan" IP addresses to find vulnerable systems. An IP address is the number that indicates where a computer exists on the Internet, a little like a street address. Port scanning -- for which there exist online tools -- is a bit like casing a house to figure out how to get in. There are certain default network ports that are used for Internet-based services. Port 80, for example, is usually the port that servers use to allow Web traffic. Hackers can check the open ports on a number of IP addresses quickly -- and then try to see if they can use the ports to access the server.
It's complicated to explain, but not in itself unusual, as Fidler indicated. (The AP article itself notes that "[i]t was not immediately clear whether the attempted intrusions into Clinton's server were serious espionage threats or the sort of nuisance attacks that hit computer servers the world over.")
But the story reinforced one of the challenges that Clinton faces as the e-mail server story continues to slowly unfold: People don't really understand how the Internet works, and so the stories might sound more ominous than they otherwise would.
Take the question of whether or not Clinton's server was "wiped." In August, a lawyer for Clinton told a Senate committee by letter that the server "no longer contains data" from Clinton's email@example.com account. This entered the news cycle as the lawyer saying that the server had been "wiped clean." (When Clinton was asked if her e-mail server was "wiped," it elicited a now-infamous response of apparent bafflement -- which in retrospect seems believable coming from a grandmother.)
According to Fidler, a full "wipe" of the server would be a best practice when decommissioning a server. In fact, the professionals would go further. "Best practices would be to uninstall the software, clean wipe and destroy the hard drives," Fidler said.
A "clean wipe" isn't just dragging the e-mails to the trash. As we noted in March, deleting files from a computer doesn't actually remove them. Instead, it tells the computer that the space once used by the files is now available for use, allowing the machine to write over the old information the way you might once have reused a cassette tape, recording over a song you no longer like. (If you are over the age of 30, that is.)
If the file is never overwritten, it's still readable, just as you can still hear that old song if you don't record over it. Data is "not deleted until you do a real wipe on it," Fidler explained. "There are programs that will wipe the drive completely. What it does is goes sector-by-sector and removes the information, and you're not able to read it afterwards." That's a wipe.
Clinton's server wasn't wiped, as we now know thanks to a scoop from our Post colleagues. At this point, the FBI has apparently recovered deleted e-mails from it. This can be viewed as a failed attempt by Clinton to cover her tracks -- or it can be assumed that the account was deleted at some point and the FBI used commonly available tools to resurrect the messages. Fidler suggests that the server should have been more robustly destroyed to protect the information, but that it's "probably not unusual" for someone shutting down a personal server to have not gone through that whole process.
When the most recent batch of e-mails released by Clinton became public at the end of last month, people noticed apparent "phishing" attempts mixed into the files. The AP reported that "Russia-linked hackers tried at least five times to pry into Hillary Rodham Clinton's private e-mail account." Included with the story was an example, showing a message pretending to be from a "police agency" with an attachment that was claimed to be a parking ticket.
That, too, is "not unusual at all," Fidler said. "It happens all the time."
There's no question that clicking an attachment from a random sender can do you harm. "If there's a virus in there, it could have something called a 'keylogger,'" Fidler said. Such a program could record everything that Clinton typed and pass it back to the hacker. It could potentially install other malicious software as well. She could also have been tricked into giving up her login credentials if she clicked a link that opened up a fake version of her e-mail server's Web access screen.
But it could not, Fidler said, directly compromise her e-mail server, unless she was checking her e-mail on the server itself. The harm also depends on her clicking the attachment, which we don't know that she did. And we'll note that most e-mails of this variety are attempts to trick people into giving up information for the purposes of stealing their money -- not attempts from international agents to steal state secrets.
The politics of Clinton's e-mail server are complex and clearly have helped to shift the public's assessment of Clinton as a candidate. It is fair to question the security of the system and her decision to rely on it.
It is also the case that a lot of assessments of Clinton's use of a personal e-mail server make very big mountains out of what might be very small molehills.