A US cybersecurity firm hired by a Russian bank to investigate allegations of a secret line of communication with the Trump Organization said on Tuesday there was no evidence so far of substantive contact, email or financial links.
Mandiant, which is owned by the California-based company FireEye, said it examined internet server logs presented to the bank by media organisations investigating the link.
The online magazine Slate published a story on Monday about communication between a server hosting Trump domain addresses and a server owned by the Moscow-based Alfa Bank, owned by two oligarchs, Mikhail Fridman and Pyotr Aven. Aven worked with Vladimir Putin in city government in St Petersburg in the early 1990s.
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The Slate story, quoting a range of cybersecurity experts, said the communication between the servers suggested it was human rather than robotic, and that it was intended to be secret and exclusive.
In a statement, FireEye said it had been presented with a log of the communication between the servers over a period of 90 days, listing the separate contacts.
“The information presented is inconclusive and is not evidence of substantive contact or a direct email or financial link between Alfa Bank and the Trump campaign or Organization,” the statement said. “The list presented does not contain enough information to show that there has been any actual activity opposed to simple DNS lookups, which can come from a variety of sources including anti-spam and other security software.”
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The statement continued: “As part of the ongoing investigation, Alfa Bank has opened its IT systems to Mandiant, which has investigated both remotely and on the ground in Moscow. We are continuing our investigation. Nothing we have or have found alters our view as described above that there isn’t evidence of substantive contact or a direct email or financial link between Alfa Bank and the Trump campaign or Organization.”
The allegations have triggered debate among security experts in the US, in the midst of a fierce political row over the role of the FBI. Democrats have decried the decision of the FBI director, James Comey, to notify Congress of the discovery of new emails relevant to its inquiry into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server while secretary of state, without making public parallel investigations into Trump’s ties to Russia.
Computer scientists quoted in the Slate story said that the Trump server had a capacity for mass email but was only being used for a small amount of traffic, nearly 90% of which was with servers from a single organisation, Alfa Bank.
“The parties were communicating in a secretive fashion. The operative word is secretive. This is more akin to what criminal syndicates do if they are putting together a project,” said Paul Vixie, a software expert and one of the creators of the domain name system (DNS) that guides communication on the internet.
Robert Graham, a cybersecurity expert and head of Errata Security, dismissed the claims as “nonsense”. He said the domain in question, trump-email.com, was actually controlled by Cendyn, a company that handles marketing for hotels, including Trump’s hotels.
Graham also argued that there was no sign of human communication between the servers, which appeared to be looking up each other’s IP (internet protocol) addresses, the first step towards establishing communication. The logs show that two Alfa Bank servers sent a total of more than 2,700 lookup requests to the Trump email server.
“The requests are spread out evenly throughout the day, with no correlation to time zones,” Graham said in an email. “This would indicate automated tools looking up incoming spam addresses, not humans sending email. If it were sign of human activity, we would see spikes around 9am when people got to work and 1pm when they got back from lunch.”
John Bambenek, a consultant with Fidelis Cybersecurity, who has also studied the logs, said there were unanswered questions about their provenance and authenticity.
“The identity of the person bringing the data can be more important than the data,” Bambenek said. “I’m suspicious of the claims that this was gathered legally. They tell an interesting story, but it’s not clear whether there is selection or filter applied … I smell smoke. I just don’t know where the smoke is coming from.’
L Jean Camp, a professor of informatics at Indiana University, said there were still a lot of unanswered questions about the communication between the servers.
“It doesn’t act like a marketing server. Because you wouldn’t use a heavy-duty mailer with over 80% of its communication with just one organisation,” Camp said. “I don’t know of any marketing campaign that would do that.”
According to Slate, the Trump email domain was hastily reconfigured after a New York Times reporter approached Alfa Bank about the connection in September. On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that the FBI had spent weeks looking into the Alfa-Trump logs but concluded that “there could be an innocuous explanation, like a marketing email or spam, for the computer contacts”.