Donald Trump email server with ties to Russia's Alfa Bank questioned

By Eric DuVall   |   Nov. 1, 2016 at 9:39 AM
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NEW YORK, Nov. 1 (UPI) -- A group of IT specialists who track traffic on the Internet said they have come across evidence of an email server owned by the Trump Organization that regularly interacted with servers owned by a Russian bank.

An FBI investigation, meanwhile, concluded the interaction could be a coincidence, The New York Times reported.

GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump and his campaign have said he has no business interests with -- or political ties to -- Russia, which the Justice Department said is attempting to meddle in the U.S. election exclusively to the detriment of Trump's Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.

A group of Internet experts who track server traffic told Slate they came across evidence of sustained traffic between a server in Trump Tower and two Alfa Bank servers in Moscow. The pings do not conclusively show what kind of communication existed between the servers, only that, in Internet parlance, they were trying to "find" one another's IP addresses on numerous occasions.

The Trump server had other anomalies. When researchers tried to ping it themselves, they received an error message, implying the server was set to reject incoming requests except for those from pre-approved IP addresses, creating a sort of private hotline between the Trump server and Alfa Bank, which accounted for 87 percent of the overall traffic the server experienced.

The leaders of Alfa Bank have close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Internet experts told Slate the number of times the servers pinged one another -- more than 2,700 -- was frequent enough and occurred at random intervals, so as to suggest the most likely explanation was that it was the result of human interaction via email or another form of messaging.

At one point, it appeared to have been disabled at Trump Tower, then later reactivated under a new server name. The first point of contact for the Trump server using the new name was from an Alfa Bank server, which experts said would be impossible were it not for some external form of communication between someone in the Trump Organization and Alfa Bank.

The equivalent, the experts said, would be someone shutting off one telephone number, getting a new one and having their first call come from a friend who was dialing randomly and correctly guessed the new number.

The FBI said it investigated the purported links. The Times reported the FBI's in-depth review of the evidence concluded it could be a coincidence and did not conclude the traffic was proof of regular communication between Trump employees and Alfa Bank. It was not clear whether the FBI's investigation happened before or after the server was shut off and subsequently turned back on under a new name.

The FBI and the Internet experts, many of whom go by pseudonyms to protect their identity, agreed it is possible the Internet activity is a coincidence. It could be caused, for example, by a single errant piece of spam that's been hung up in cyberspace, bouncing back and forth between the two servers, giving the appearance of regular communication when in reality, it was a piece of automated email that no one has ever read or received.

Richard Clayton, a cybersecurity expert at Cambridge University, told Slate it's possible the traffic is an anomaly, but the more likely explanation is actual human interaction of some kind.

"I think [email] is more likely ... Dr. Occam says you should rule out mail before pulling out the more exotic explanations," Clayton said, referring to he scientific theory known as Occam's Razor, which holds the most likely explanation for something is usually the correct one.

Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks categorically denied any contact between Trump and Alfa Bank.

"The Trump Organization is not sending or receiving any communications from this email server. The Trump Organization has no communication or relationship with this entity or any Russian entity," she said.

Clinton's campaign, meanwhile, called on the federal investigators to more fully probe the potential links between Trump and the Russian bank.

"This could be the most direct link yet between Donald Trump and Moscow," Clinton senior policy adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement released by the campaign. "We can only assume that federal authorities will now explore this direct connection between Trump and Russia as part of their existing probe of Russia meddling in our elections."

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