Entries Tagged "whistleblowers"

Page 2 of 6

Who Are the Shadow Brokers?

In 2013, a mysterious group of hackers that calls itself the Shadow Brokers stole a few disks full of NSA secrets. Since last summer, they’ve been dumping these secrets on the Internet. They have publicly embarrassed the NSA and damaged its intelligence-gathering capabilities, while at the same time have put sophisticated cyberweapons in the hands of anyone who wants them. They have exposed major vulnerabilities in Cisco routers, Microsoft Windows, and Linux mail servers, forcing those companies and their customers to scramble. And they gave the authors of the WannaCry ransomware the exploit they needed to infect hundreds of thousands of computer worldwide this month.

After the WannaCry outbreak, the Shadow Brokers threatened to release more NSA secrets every month, giving cybercriminals and other governments worldwide even more exploits and hacking tools.

Who are these guys? And how did they steal this information? The short answer is: we don’t know. But we can make some educated guesses based on the material they’ve published.

The Shadow Brokers suddenly appeared last August, when they published a series of hacking tools and computer exploits­—vulnerabilities in common software—­from the NSA. The material was from autumn 2013, and seems to have been collected from an external NSA staging server, a machine that is owned, leased, or otherwise controlled by the US, but with no connection to the agency. NSA hackers find obscure corners of the Internet to hide the tools they need as they go about their work, and it seems the Shadow Brokers successfully hacked one of those caches.

In total, the group has published four sets of NSA material: a set of exploits and hacking tools against routers, the devices that direct data throughout computer networks; a similar collection against mail servers; another collection against Microsoft Windows; and a working directory of an NSA analyst breaking into the SWIFT banking network. Looking at the time stamps on the files and other material, they all come from around 2013. The Windows attack tools, published last month, might be a year or so older, based on which versions of Windows the tools support.

The releases are so different that they’re almost certainly from multiple sources at the NSA. The SWIFT files seem to come from an internal NSA computer, albeit one connected to the Internet. The Microsoft files seem different, too; they don’t have the same identifying information that the router and mail server files do. The Shadow Brokers have released all the material unredacted, without the care journalists took with the Snowden documents or even the care WikiLeaks has taken with the CIA secrets it’s publishing. They also posted anonymous messages in bad English but with American cultural references.

Given all of this, I don’t think the agent responsible is a whistleblower. While possible, it seems like a whistleblower wouldn’t sit on attack tools for three years before publishing. They would act more like Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning, collecting for a time and then publishing immediately­—and publishing documents that discuss what the US is doing to whom. That’s not what we’re seeing here; it’s simply a bunch of exploit code, which doesn’t have the political or ethical implications that a whistleblower would want to highlight. The SWIFT documents are records of an NSA operation, and the other posted files demonstrate that the NSA is hoarding vulnerabilities for attack rather than helping fix them and improve all of our security.

I also don’t think that it’s random hackers who stumbled on these tools and are just trying to harm the NSA or the US. Again, the three-year wait makes no sense. These documents and tools are cyber-Kryptonite; anyone who is secretly hoarding them is in danger from half the intelligence agencies in the world. Additionally, the publication schedule doesn’t make sense for the leakers to be cybercriminals. Criminals would use the hacking tools for themselves, incorporating the exploits into worms and viruses, and generally profiting from the theft.

That leaves a nation state. Whoever got this information years before and is leaking it now has to be both capable of hacking the NSA and willing to publish it all. Countries like Israel and France are capable, but would never publish, because they wouldn’t want to incur the wrath of the US. Countries like North Korea or Iran probably aren’t capable. (Additionally, North Korea is suspected of being behind WannaCry, which was written after the Shadow Brokers released that vulnerability to the public.) As I’ve written previously, the obvious list of countries who fit my two criteria is small: Russia, China, and­—I’m out of ideas. And China is currently trying to make nice with the US.

It was generally believed last August, when the first documents were released and before it became politically controversial to say so, that the Russians were behind the leak, and that it was a warning message to President Barack Obama not to retaliate for the Democratic National Committee hacks. Edward Snowden guessed Russia, too. But the problem with the Russia theory is, why? These leaked tools are much more valuable if kept secret. Russia could use the knowledge to detect NSA hacking in its own country and to attack other countries. By publishing the tools, the Shadow Brokers are signaling that they don’t care if the US knows the tools were stolen.

Sure, there’s a chance the attackers knew that the US knew that the attackers knew—­and round and round we go. But the “we don’t give a damn” nature of the releases points to an attacker who isn’t thinking strategically: a lone hacker or hacking group, which clashes with the nation-state theory.

This is all speculation on my part, based on discussion with others who don’t have access to the classified forensic and intelligence analysis. Inside the NSA, they have a lot more information. Many of the files published include operational notes and identifying information. NSA researchers know exactly which servers were compromised, and through that know what other information the attackers would have access to. As with the Snowden documents, though, they only know what the attackers could have taken and not what they did take. But they did alert Microsoft about the Windows vulnerability the Shadow Brokers released months in advance. Did they have eavesdropping capability inside whoever stole the files, as they claimed to when the Russians attacked the State Department? We have no idea.

So, how did the Shadow Brokers do it? Did someone inside the NSA accidentally mount the wrong server on some external network? That’s possible, but seems very unlikely for the organization to make that kind of rookie mistake. Did someone hack the NSA itself? Could there be a mole inside the NSA?

If it is a mole, my guess is that the person was arrested before the Shadow Brokers released anything. No country would burn a mole working for it by publishing what that person delivered while he or she was still in danger. Intelligence agencies know that if they betray a source this severely, they’ll never get another one.

That points to two possibilities. The first is that the files came from Hal Martin. He’s the NSA contractor who was arrested in August for hoarding agency secrets in his house for two years. He can’t be the publisher, because the Shadow Brokers are in business even though he is in prison. But maybe the leaker got the documents from his stash, either because Martin gave the documents to them or because he himself was hacked. The dates line up, so it’s theoretically possible. There’s nothing in the public indictment against Martin that speaks to his selling secrets to a foreign power, but that’s just the sort of thing that would be left out. It’s not needed for a conviction.

If the source of the documents is Hal Martin, then we can speculate that a random hacker did in fact stumble on it—­no need for nation-state cyberattack skills.

The other option is a mysterious second NSA leaker of cyberattack tools. Could this be the person who stole the NSA documents and passed them on to someone else? The only time I have ever heard about this was from a Washington Post story about Martin:

There was a second, previously undisclosed breach of cybertools, discovered in the summer of 2015, which was also carried out by a TAO employee [a worker in the Office of Tailored Access Operations], one official said. That individual also has been arrested, but his case has not been made public. The individual is not thought to have shared the material with another country, the official said.

Of course, “not thought to have” is not the same as not having done so.

It is interesting that there have been no public arrests of anyone in connection with these hacks. If the NSA knows where the files came from, it knows who had access to them—­and it’s long since questioned everyone involved and should know if someone deliberately or accidentally lost control of them. I know that many people, both inside the government and out, think there is some sort of domestic involvement; things may be more complicated than I realize.

It’s also not over. Last week, the Shadow Brokers were back, with a rambling and taunting message announcing a “Data Dump of the Month” service. They’re offering to sell unreleased NSA attack tools­—something they also tried last August­—with the threat to publish them if no one pays. The group has made good on their previous boasts: In the coming months, we might see new exploits against web browsers, networking equipment, smartphones, and operating systems—Windows in particular. Even scarier, they’re threatening to release raw NSA intercepts: data from the SWIFT network and banks, and “compromised data from Russian, Chinese, Iranian, or North Korean nukes and missile programs.”

Whoever the Shadow Brokers are, however they stole these disks full of NSA secrets, and for whatever reason they’re releasing them, it’s going to be a long summer inside of Fort Meade­—as it will be for the rest of us.

This essay previously appeared in the Atlantic, and is an update of this essay from Lawfare.

Posted on May 30, 2017 at 6:08 AMView Comments

Whistleblower Investigative Report on NSA Suite B Cryptography

The NSA has been abandoning secret and proprietary cryptographic algorithms in favor of commercial public algorithms, generally known as “Suite B.” In 2010, an NSA employee filed some sort of whistleblower complaint, alleging that this move is both insecure and wasteful. The US DoD Inspector General investigated and wrote a report in 2011.

The report—slightly redacted and declassified—found that there was no wrongdoing. But the report is an interesting window into the NSA’s system of algorithm selection and testing (pages 5 and 6), as well as how they investigate whistleblower complaints.

Posted on November 9, 2016 at 12:00 PMView Comments

Organizational Doxing

Recently, WikiLeaks began publishing over half a million previously secret cables and other documents from the Foreign Ministry of Saudi Arabia. It’s a huge trove, and already reporters are writing stories about the highly secretive government.

What Saudi Arabia is experiencing isn’t common but part of a growing trend.

Just last week, unknown hackers broke into the network of the cyber-weapons arms manufacturer Hacking Team and published 400 gigabytes of internal data, describing, among other things, its sale of Internet surveillance software to totalitarian regimes around the world.

Last year, hundreds of gigabytes of Sony’s sensitive data was published on the Internet, including executive salaries, corporate emails and contract negotiations. The attacker in this case was the government of North Korea, which was punishing Sony for producing a movie that made fun of its leader. In 2010, the U.S. cyberweapons arms manufacturer HBGary Federal was a victim, and its attackers were members of a loose hacker collective called LulzSec.

Edward Snowden stole a still-unknown number of documents from the National Security Agency in 2013 and gave them to reporters to publish. Chelsea Manning stole three-quarters of a million documents from the U.S. State Department and gave them to WikiLeaks to publish. The person who stole the Saudi Arabian documents might also be a whistleblower and insider but is more likely a hacker who wanted to punish the kingdom.

Organizations are increasingly getting hacked, and not by criminals wanting to steal credit card numbers or account information in order to commit fraud, but by people intent on stealing as much data as they can and publishing it. Law professor and privacy expert Peter Swire refers to “the declining half-life of secrets.” Secrets are simply harder to keep in the information age. This is bad news for all of us who value our privacy, but there’s a hidden benefit when it comes to organizations.

The decline of secrecy means the rise of transparency. Organizational transparency is vital to any open and free society.

Open government laws and freedom of information laws let citizens know what the government is doing, and enable them to carry out their democratic duty to oversee its activities. Corporate disclosure laws perform similar functions in the private sphere. Of course, both corporations and governments have some need for secrecy, but the more they can be open, the more we can knowledgeably decide whether to trust them.

This makes the debate more complicated than simple personal privacy. Publishing someone’s private writings and communications is bad, because in a free and diverse society people should have private space to think and act in ways that would embarrass them if public.

But organizations are not people and, while there are legitimate trade secrets, their information should otherwise be transparent. Holding government and corporate private behavior to public scrutiny is good.

Most organizational secrets are only valuable for a short term: negotiations, new product designs, earnings numbers before they’re released, patents before filing, and so on.

Forever secrets, like the formula for Coca-Cola, are few and far between. The one exception is embarrassments. If an organization had to assume that anything it did would become public in a few years, people within that organization would behave differently.

The NSA would have had to weigh its collection programs against the possibility of public scrutiny. Sony would have had to think about how it would look to the world if it paid its female executives significantly less than its male executives. HBGary would have thought twice before launching an intimidation campaign against a journalist it didn’t like, and Hacking Team wouldn’t have lied to the UN about selling surveillance software to Sudan. Even the government of Saudi Arabia would have behaved differently. Such embarrassment might be the first significant downside of hiring a psychopath as CEO.

I don’t want to imply that this forced transparency is a good thing, though. The threat of disclosure chills all speech, not just illegal, embarrassing, or objectionable speech. There will be less honest and candid discourse. People in organizations need the freedom to write and say things that they wouldn’t want to be made public.

State Department officials need to be able to describe foreign leaders, even if their descriptions are unflattering. Movie executives need to be able to say unkind things about their movie stars. If they can’t, their organizations will suffer.

With few exceptions, our secrets are stored on computers and networks vulnerable to hacking. It’s much easier to break into networks than it is to secure them, and large organizational networks are very complicated and full of security holes. Bottom line: If someone sufficiently skilled, funded and motivated wants to steal an organization’s secrets, they will succeed. This includes hacktivists (HBGary Federal, Hacking Team), foreign governments (Sony), and trusted insiders (State Department and NSA).

It’s not likely that your organization’s secrets will be posted on the Internet for everyone to see, but it’s always a possibility.

Dumping an organization’s secret information is going to become increasingly common as individuals realize its effectiveness for whistleblowing and revenge. While some hackers will use journalists to separate the news stories from mere personal information, not all will.

Both governments and corporations need to assume that their secrets are more likely to be exposed, and exposed sooner, than ever. They should do all they can to protect their data and networks, but have to realize that their best defense might be to refrain from doing things that don’t look good on the front pages of the world’s newspapers.

This essay previously appeared on CNN.com. I didn’t use the term “organizational doxing,” though, because it would be too unfamiliar to that audience.

EDITED TO ADD: This essay has been translated into German.

Posted on July 10, 2015 at 4:32 AMView Comments

Counting the US Intelligence Community Leakers

It’s getting hard to keep track of the US intelligence community leakers without a scorecard. So here’s my attempt:

  • Leaker #1: Chelsea Manning.
  • Leaker #2: Edward Snowden.
  • Leaker #3: The person who leaked secret documents to Jake Appelbaum, Laura Poitras, and others in Germany: the Angela Merkel surveillance story, the TAO catalog, the X-KEYSCORE rules. My guess is that this is either an NSA employee or contractor working in Germany, or someone from German intelligence who has access to NSA documents. Snowden has said that he is not the source for the Merkel story, and Greenwald has confirmed that the Snowden documents are not the source for the X-KEYSCORE rules. This might be the “high-ranking NSA employee in Germany” from this story—or maybe that’s someone else entirely.
  • Leaker #4: “A source in the intelligence community,” according to the Intercept, who leaked information about the Terrorist Screening Database, the “second leaker” from the movie Citizen Four. Greenwald promises a lot from him: “Snowden, at a meeting with Greenwald in Moscow, expresses surprise at the level of information apparently coming from this new source. Greenwald, fearing he will be overheard, writes the details on scraps of paper.” We have seen nothing since, though. This is probably the leaker the FBI identified, although we have heard nothing further about that, either.
  • Leaker #5: Someone who is leaking CIA documents.
  • Leaker #6: The person who leaked secret information about WTO spying to the Intercept and the New Zealand Herald. This isn’t Snowden; the Intercept is very careful to identify him as the source when it writes about the documents he provided. Neither publication give any indication of how it was obtained. This might be Leaker #3, since it contains X-KEYSCORE rules.
  • Leaker #7: The person who just leaked secret information about the US drone program to the Intercept and Der Spiegel. This also might be Leaker #3, since there is a Germany connection. According to the Intercept: “The slides were provided by a source with knowledge of the U.S. government’s drone program who declined to be identified because of fears of retribution.” That implies someone new.

Am I missing anyone?

Harvard Law School professor Yochai Benkler has written an excellent law review article on the need for a whistleblower defense. And there’s this excellent article by David Pozen on why government leaks are, in general, a good thing. I wrote about the value of whistleblowers in Data and Goliath.

Way back in June 2013, Glenn Greenwald said that “courage is contagious.” He seems to be correct.

This post was originally published on the Lawfare blog.

EDITED TO ADD (4/22): News article.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have included Manning in this list. I wanted it to be a list of active leaks, not historical leaks. And while Snowden is no longer leaking information, the reporters who received his documents are still releasing bits and pieces.

Posted on April 20, 2015 at 11:18 AMView Comments

US Intelligence "Second Leaker" Identified

There’s a report that the FBI has identified a second leaker:

The case in question involves an Aug. 5 story published by The Intercept, an investigative website co-founded by Glenn Greenwald, the reporter who first published sensitive NSA documents obtained from Snowden.

Headlined “Barack Obama’s Secret Terrorist-Tracking System, by the Numbers,” the story cited a classified government document showing that nearly half the people on the U.S. government’s master terrorist screening database had “no recognized terrorist affiliation.”

The story, co-authored by Jeremy Scahill and Ryan Devereaux, was accompanied by a document “obtained from a source in the intelligence community” providing details about the watch-listing system that were dated as late as August 2013, months after Snowden fled to Hong Kong and revealed himself as the leaker of thousands of top secret documents from the NSA.

I think this is “Leaker #3” on my list, even though it’s probably the “second leaker” discussed in the documentary Citizen Four.

Posted on October 27, 2014 at 4:08 PMView Comments

How Did the Feds Identity Dread Pirate Roberts?

Last month, I wrote that the FBI identified Ross W. Ulbricht as the Silk Road’s Dread Pirate Roberts through a leaky CAPTCHA. Seems that story doesn’t hold water:

The FBI claims that it found the Silk Road server by examining plain text Internet traffic to and from the Silk Road CAPTCHA, and that it visited the address using a regular browser and received the CAPTCHA page. But [Nicholas] Weaver says the traffic logs from the Silk Road server (PDF) that also were released by the government this week tell a different story.

“The server logs which the FBI provides as evidence show that, no, what happened is the FBI didn’t see a leakage coming from that IP,” he said. “What happened is they contacted that IP directly and got a PHPMyAdmin configuration page.” See this PDF file for a look at that PHPMyAdmin page. Here is the PHPMyAdmin server configuration.

But this is hardly a satisfying answer to how the FBI investigators located the Silk Road servers. After all, if the FBI investigators contacted the PHPMyAdmin page directly, how did they know to do that in the first place?

“That’s still the $64,000 question,” Weaver said. “So both the CAPTCHA couldn’t leak in that configuration, and the IP the government visited wasn’t providing the CAPTCHA, but instead a PHPMyAdmin interface. Thus, the leaky CAPTCHA story is full of holes.”

My guess is that the NSA provided the FBI with this information. We know that the NSA provides surveillance data to the FBI and the DEA, under the condition that they lie about where it came from in court.

NSA whistleblower William Binney explained how it’s done:

…when you can’t use the data, you have to go out and do a parallel construction, [which] means you use what you would normally consider to be investigative techniques, [and] go find the data. You have a little hint, though. NSA is telling you where the data is…

Posted on October 20, 2014 at 6:19 AMView Comments

New NSA Snowden Documents

Glenn Greenwald’s new book, No Place to Hide, was published today. There are about 100 pages of NSA documents on the book’s website. I haven’t gone through them yet. At a quick glance, only a few of them have been published before.

Here are two book reviews.

EDITED TO ADD (5/13): It’s suprising how large the FBI’s role in all of this is. On page 81, we see that they’re the point contact for BLARNEY. (BLARNEY is a decades-old AT&T data collection program.) And page 28 shows the ESCU—that’s the FBI’s Electronic Communications Surveillance Unit—is point on all the important domestic collection and interaction with companies. When companies deny that they work with the NSA, it’s likely that they’re working with the FBI and not realizing that it’s the NSA that getting all the data they’re providing.

Posted on May 13, 2014 at 6:38 AMView Comments

1971 FBI Burglary

Interesting story:

…burglars took a lock pick and a crowbar and broke into a Federal Bureau of Investigation office in a suburb of Philadelphia, making off with nearly every document inside.

They were never caught, and the stolen documents that they mailed anonymously to newspaper reporters were the first trickle of what would become a flood of revelations about extensive spying and dirty-tricks operations by the F.B.I. against dissident groups.

Video article. And the book.

Interesting precursor to Edward Snowden.

Posted on January 10, 2014 at 6:45 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.