Trump should consider Russia ‘adversary’ in fight for cybersecurity, Hickton says
The American public should be “extremely alarmed” about the impact that computer hacking had on the presidential election, former U.S. Attorney David Hickton told the Tribune-Review.
Publicly released emails taken from the Democratic National Committee and Democrat Hillary Clinton’s campaign operatives should be treated as stolen property, said Hickton, who was appointed by President Obama in 2010. WikiLeaks released the hacked information throughout the latter months of the campaign.
Hickton spoke to the Trib in his first public interview since leaving office at midnight Monday.
“There was a whole stream of incidents that, at least in the perception of the public, were creating a side story, and when you look actually at how some countries, including Russia, have tried to use the democratic process to achieve their national aims … I think we all should be extremely alarmed,” Hickton said.
The first U.S. Attorney to resign after Republican Donald Trump was elected president last month, Hickton officially announced his decision Nov. 14.
The work of leaving office actually started sooner than that. At work by 8 a.m. the morning after the election, Hickton began removing family photos from under the glass on his desktop. Within 45 minutes, he had packed most of his personal belongings. He started talking with his staff about the transition later that morning.
Soo Song, who had been Hickton’s second-in-command as First Assistant U.S. Attorney, will serve as acting U.S. Attorney here until the Senate confirms whoever Trump nominates to replace Hickton.
“It’s hard to think about David Hickton only in terms about Western Pennsylvania,” said Kristopher Rush, technical director of monitoring and response at the Software Engineering Institute’s CERT Division in Oakland. “He clearly had a national impact and one would argue an international impact as well.”
Under Hickton, the U.S. Attorney’s office prosecuted watershed cybersecurity cases that showed how a local jurisdiction could take on an international issue, said Matt LaVigna, president and CEO of the National Cyber-Forensics & Training Alliance , a nonprofit with offices in Pittsburgh, New York City and Los Angeles that brings together public and private cybersecurity experts.
“The cases that his office worked weren’t the first cyber cases but it would be tough to make the argument there were bigger ones,” LaVigna said. “They had the most impact, and they helped dispel the belief that cyber criminals are anonymous and untouchable.”
The region already had cybersecurity resources, but Hickton pulled them together in effective new ways, said David Ries , a lawyer at Clark Hill PLC, Downtown, and a board member of InfraGard, a joint effort of the FBI and private companies.
“He’s had a major impact in being a leader on cybersecurity and taking a lot of great assets and pulling them together to make Pittsburgh the epicenter for cyber law enforcement in the country,” Ries said. “His leaving is a pretty big loss, but the core is still there.”
Hickton said he plans to stay in Western Pennsylvania and remain involved in issues that his office prosecuted, such as cybersecurity. opioid abuse and civil rights violations.
By taking on difficult, international computer crimes, Hickton set new standards for collaborating with friendly countries and targeting defendants in China, Russia and elsewhere.
Looking ahead, Hickton said he believes the incoming president has been too friendly with Russia and perhaps too hard on the Chinese.
Hickton’s landmark cyber case led to the indictment of five members of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, but he said the United States and China must remain partners. The countries need each other, he said.
Two other high-profile cases — bringing down thethat had been used to steal more than $100 million across the United States, and disrupting the — involved hackers in Russia, among other places.
It’s a mistake to ignore Russia as a cyber threat, Hickton said.
“(Trump) certainly made statements about Russia that would concern me,” Hickton said. “And maybe (those statements) shouldn’t be taken seriously yet at this point because he’s not president and doesn’t have all of the information. … We ought not to be talking about Russia as if they’re not an adversary because they clearly are.”
Hickton said he hopes his eventual successor will see a strategic national interest in cyber and recognize that the assets exist in Pittsburgh to keep up the fight.
The cases he brought had immediate and lasting impacts, Hickton said.
“People will be talking about (the cases) for decades,” Hickton said. “They form the foundation for modern law enforcement. More than that, they form the foundation of giving the government more tools in the toolbox.
“No one dreamed we would do that in 2010. No one even talked about it. We just decided that it was strategically important.”
Andrew Conte is a Tribune-Review contributing writer and the director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University.