According to David Sanger of the New York Times, experts believe that Hillary Clinton’s email account probably was hacked successfully. They also say that James Comey’s statement on the subject suggests he believes this too.
Comey chose his words carefully. He said his investigators found no “direct evidence” that Hillary Clinton’s email account had been “successfully hacked.” It’s reasonable to infer that they found circumstantial evidence of successful hacking.
Circumstantial evidence (most of which Comey mentioned in his statement) is what the experts Sanger cites rely on. First, as Adam Segal, the author of “Hacked World Order,” who studies cyberissues at the Council on Foreign Relations explains, “sophisticated attackers would have known of the existence of the account, would have targeted it and would not have been seen.” (Emphasis added)
How would they have known about Hillary’s private account? Because, as Comey said, “hostile actors gained access to the private commercial email accounts of people with whom Secretary Clinton was in regular contact.” From there, tracking the trail of electronic breadcrumbs back to her server would have been a pretty simple task.
Would hostile actors then have been able successfully to hack Clinton’s system? Sanger says “their ability to break in would have been a mix of skill and luck, but they had plenty of time to get it right.”
One other fact, which Comey highlighted, makes it likely that hostile actors “got it right.” Clinton used her private email while in the territory of what he called “sophisticated adversaries.” Presumably, this means China and/or Russia, though it could mean some other country that’s comparably tech savvy.
Sanger explains that once the hardware is in a foreign country, and on its phone networks, it is particularly vulnerable. James A. Lewis, a former government cyber security expert who now studies the cyber activities of nations at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Sanger, “if she used it in Russia or China, they almost certainly picked it up.”
We may never know for sure whether they, or any other adversary, did pick it up. We do know that Clinton gave them a golden opportunity to do so. More likely than not, they took advantage of that opportunity.