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Hacker claims he helped swing Mexican election

Engadget Engadget 1/04/2016 Aaron Souppouris

A Bloomberg Businessweek report centered on a Colombian online campaign strategist alleges he hacked political rivals to engineer results in elections across nine Latin American countries.

The man, Andrés Sepúlveda, is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence for offences related to hacking during Colombia's 2014 presidential election. But talking to Bloomberg, he alleges that his involvement in politics in the region runs far deeper. The full article runs almost 5,000 words, exposing a vast array of hacking activity.

Sepúlveda alleges that the money for these operations came from Juan José Rendón, a Venezuelan political consultant based in Miami. Rendón vehemently denies his involvement, and says emails provided to Bloomberg as proof were faked.

Assignments that Sepúlveda claims he was handed range from mundane activity like protecting a Honduran candidate from other hackers, or stealing opponents' email databases to spam accounts with disinformation. But some are far more nefarious. Perhaps the most ostentatious allegation he makes is that he was paid to ensure Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party's (PRI) candidate, Peña Nieto, won the country's election in 2012.

Sepúlveda claims he was given a $600,000 war chest to ensure victory, and assembled a team of hackers to make it happen. The team, he says, installed router malware at the headquarters of PRI's main opponents. and used that to tap into phones and computers in the buildings. With this link established, he could read campaign schedules and speeches before they were even finished, and read confidential emails between campaign team members.

He then used both fake, hand-written accounts and an army of 30,000 Twitter bots, using this confidential information to give his candidate the upper hand. In one example of it all coming together, Bloomberg says Sepúlveda discovered a candidate's weaknesses among voters in an internal staff memo, and started stoking that fear to make the topic trend on Twitter.

Other tactics allegedly used during the campaign include faking 3am robo-calls from political rivals on election eve, or starting a (fake) movement of gay men backing a candidate to alienate his heavily Catholic voter base.

Rendón acknowledges that he has worked with PRI candidates for 16 years, but says his working relationship with Sepúlveda never extended past website design. Sepúlveda, for his part, admits that candidates in some elections may not have been aware that he was even involved, let alone breaking the law. Since being incarcerated, he says he's been working on behalf of the government to "track and disrupt drug cartels" using a modified version of the software he created to hack campaigns. He also claims he can identify ISIS recruiters on Twitter within minutes of them signing up, and says he wants to share the software he uses to do it with the US and other countries fighting the terrorist organization.

Sepúlveda's story is truly stunning, and Bloomberg was able to corroborate parts of the narrative, although admits that not all details could be independently verified. One anonymous source in the Mexican campaign "substantially confirmed Sepúlveda's accounts of his and Rendón's roles in that election."

Bloomberg Businessweek

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