This story [slate.com] comes to us from Franklin Foer at slate.com.
The story begins in late July, when security research "Tea Leaves" was searching for traces of Russian malware infecting computers at both major political parties. He happened upon a strange set of DNS lookups for the domain "Trump-Email.com" emanating from Russia in an unusual pattern. Then things got weird.
The researchers quickly dismissed their initial fear that the logs represented a malware attack. The communication wasn’t the work of bots. The irregular pattern of server lookups actually resembled the pattern of human conversation—conversations that began during office hours in New York and continued during office hours in Moscow. It dawned on the researchers that this wasn’t an attack, but a sustained relationship between a server registered to the Trump Organization and two servers registered to an entity called Alfa Bank.
The researchers had initially stumbled in their diagnosis because of the odd configuration of Trump’s server. “I’ve never seen a server set up like that,” says Christopher Davis, who runs the cybersecurity firm HYAS InfoSec Inc. and won a FBI Director Award for Excellence for his work tracking down the authors of one of the world’s nastiest botnet attacks. “It looked weird, and it didn’t pass the sniff test.” The server was first registered to Trump’s business in 2009 and was set up to run consumer marketing campaigns. It had a history of sending mass emails on behalf of Trump-branded properties and products. Researchers were ultimately convinced that the server indeed belonged to Trump. (Click here to see the server’s registration record.) But now this capacious server handled a strangely small load of traffic, such a small load that it would be hard for a company to justify the expense and trouble it would take to maintain it. “I get more mail in a day than the server handled,” Davis says.
That wasn’t the only oddity. When the researchers pinged the server, they received error messages. They concluded that the server was set to accept only incoming communication from a very small handful of IP addresses. A small portion of the logs showed communication with a server belonging to Michigan-based Spectrum Health. (The company said in a statement: “Spectrum Health does not have a relationship with Alfa Bank or any of the Trump organizations. We have concluded a rigorous investigation with both our internal IT security specialists and expert cyber security firms. Our experts have conducted a detailed analysis of the alleged internet traffic and did not find any evidence that it included any actual communications (no emails, chat, text, etc.) between Spectrum Health and Alfa Bank or any of the Trump organizations. While we did find a small number of incoming spam marketing emails, they originated from a digital marketing company, Cendyn, advertising Trump Hotels.”)
More after the break.
In September, the scientists tried to get the public to pay attention to their data. One of them posted a link to the logs in a Reddit thread. Around the same time, the New York Times’ Eric Lichtblau and Steven Lee Myers began chasing the story. (They are still pursuing it.) Lichtblau met with a Washington representative of Alfa Bank on Sept. 21, and the bank denied having any connection to Trump. (Lichtblau told me that Times policy prevents him from commenting on his reporting.)
The Times hadn’t yet been in touch with the Trump campaign—Lichtblau spoke with the campaign a week later—but shortly after it reached out to Alfa, the Trump domain name in question seemed to suddenly stop working. When the scientists looked up the host, the DNS server returned a fail message, evidence that it no longer functioned. Or as it is technically diagnosed, it had “SERVFAILed.” (On the timeline above, this is the moment at the end of the chronology when the traffic abruptly spikes, as servers frantically attempt to resend rejected messages.) The computer scientists believe there was one logical conclusion to be drawn: The Trump Organization shut down the server after Alfa was told that the Times might expose the connection. Weaver told me the Trump domain was “very sloppily removed.” Or as another of the researchers put it, it looked like “the knee was hit in Moscow, the leg kicked in New York.”
Four days later, on Sept. 27, the Trump Organization created a new host name, trump1.contact-client.com, which enabled communication to the very same server via a different route. When a new host name is created, the first communication with it is never random. To reach the server after the resetting of the host name, the sender of the first inbound mail has to first learn of the name somehow. It’s simply impossible to randomly reach a renamed server. “That party had to have some kind of outbound message through SMS, phone, or some noninternet channel they used to communicate [the new configuration],” Paul Vixie told me. The first attempt to look up the revised host name came from Alfa Bank. “If this was a public server, we would have seen other traces,” Vixie says. “The only look-ups came from this particular source.”
According to Vixie and others, the new host name may have represented an attempt to establish a new channel of communication. But media inquiries into the nature of Trump’s relationship with Alfa Bank, which suggested that their communications were being monitored, may have deterred the parties from using it. Soon after the New York Times began to ask questions, the traffic between the servers stopped cold.