Entries Tagged "WikiLeaks"

Page 2 of 4

Attributing the DNC Hacks to Russia

President Barack Obama’s public accusation of Russia as the source of the hacks in the US presidential election and the leaking of sensitive e-mails through WikiLeaks and other sources has opened up a debate on what constitutes sufficient evidence to attribute an attack in cyberspace. The answer is both complicated and inherently tied up in political considerations.

The administration is balancing political considerations and the inherent secrecy of electronic espionage with the need to justify its actions to the public. These issues will continue to plague us as more international conflict plays out in cyberspace.

It’s true that it’s easy for an attacker to hide who he is in cyberspace. We are unable to identify particular pieces of hardware and software around the world positively. We can’t verify the identity of someone sitting in front of a keyboard through computer data alone. Internet data packets don’t come with return addresses, and it’s easy for attackers to disguise their origins. For decades, hackers have used techniques such as jump hosts, VPNs, Tor and open relays to obscure their origin, and in many cases they work. I’m sure that many national intelligence agencies route their attacks through China, simply because everyone knows lots of attacks come from China.

On the other hand, there are techniques that can identify attackers with varying degrees of precision. It’s rarely just one thing, and you’ll often hear the term “constellation of evidence” to describe how a particular attacker is identified. It’s analogous to traditional detective work. Investigators collect clues and piece them together with known mode of operations. They look for elements that resemble other attacks and elements that are anomalies. The clues might involve ones and zeros, but the techniques go back to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

The University of Toronto-based organization Citizen Lab routinely attributes attacks against the computers of activists and dissidents to particular Third World governments. It took months to identify China as the source of the 2012 attacks against the New York Times. While it was uncontroversial to say that Russia was the source of a cyberattack against Estonia in 2007, no one knew if those attacks were authorized by the Russian government—until the attackers explained themselves. And it was the Internet security company CrowdStrike, which first attributed the attacks against the Democratic National Committee to Russian intelligence agencies in June, based on multiple pieces of evidence gathered from its forensic investigation.

Attribution is easier if you are monitoring broad swaths of the Internet. This gives the National Security Agency a singular advantage in the attribution game. The problem, of course, is that the NSA doesn’t want to publish what it knows.

Regardless of what the government knows and how it knows it, the decision of whether to make attribution evidence public is another matter. When Sony was attacked, many security experts—myself included­—were skeptical of both the government’s attribution claims and the flimsy evidence associated with it. I only became convinced when the New York Times ran a story about the government’s attribution, which talked about both secret evidence inside the NSA and human intelligence assets inside North Korea. In contrast, when the Office of Personnel Management was breached in 2015, the US government decided not to accuse China publicly, either because it didn’t want to escalate the political situation or because it didn’t want to reveal any secret evidence.

The Obama administration has been more public about its evidence in the DNC case, but it has not been entirely public.

It’s one thing for the government to know who attacked it. It’s quite another for it to convince the public who attacked it. As attribution increasingly relies on secret evidence­—as it did with North Korea’s attack of Sony in 2014 and almost certainly does regarding Russia and the previous election—­the government is going to have to face the choice of making previously secret evidence public and burning sources and methods, or keeping it secret and facing perfectly reasonable skepticism.

If the government is going to take public action against a cyberattack, it needs to make its evidence public. But releasing secret evidence might get people killed, and it would make any future confidentiality assurances we make to human sources completely non-credible. This problem isn’t going away; secrecy helps the intelligence community, but it wounds our democracy.

The constellation of evidence attributing the attacks against the DNC, and subsequent release of information, is comprehensive. It’s possible that there was more than one attack. It’s possible that someone not associated with Russia leaked the information to WikiLeaks, although we have no idea where that someone else would have obtained the information. We know that the Russian actors who hacked the DNC­—both the FSB, Russia’s principal security agency, and the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence unit—­are also attacking other political networks around the world.

In the end, though, attribution comes down to whom you believe. When Citizen Lab writes a report outlining how a United Arab Emirates human rights defender was targeted with a cyberattack, we have no trouble believing that it was the UAE government. When Google identifies China as the source of attacks against Gmail users, we believe it just as easily.

Obama decided not to make the accusation public before the election so as not to be seen as influencing the election. Now, afterward, there are political implications in accepting that Russia hacked the DNC in an attempt to influence the US presidential election. But no amount of evidence can convince the unconvinceable.

The most important thing we can do right now is deter any country from trying this sort of thing in the future, and the political nature of the issue makes that harder. Right now, we’ve told the world that others can get away with manipulating our election process as long as they can keep their efforts secret until after one side wins. Obama has promised both secret retaliations and public ones. We need to hope they’re enough.

This essay previously appeared on CNN.com.

EDITED TO ADD: The ODNI released a declassified report on the Russian attacks. Here’s a New York Times article on the report.

And last week there were Senate hearings on this issue.

EDITED TO ADD: A Washington Post article talks about some of the intelligence behind the assessment.

EDITED TO ADD (1/10): The UK connection.

Posted on January 9, 2017 at 5:53 AMView Comments

WikiLeaks Publishes NSA Target List

As part of an ongoing series of classified NSA target list and raw intercepts, WikiLeaks published details of the NSA’s spying on UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, former French leader Nicolas Sarkozy, and key Japanese and EU trade reps. WikiLeaks never says this, but it’s pretty obvious that these documents don’t come from Snowden’s archive.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. Spying on foreign leaders is exactly what I expect the NSA to do. It’s spying on the rest of the world that I have a problem with.

Other leaks in this series: France, Germany, Brazil, Japan, Italy, the European Union, and the United Nations.

BoingBoing post.

Posted on March 1, 2016 at 12:55 PMView Comments

NSA German Intercepts

On Friday, WikiLeaks published three summaries of NSA intercepts of German government communications. To me, the most interesting thing is not the intercept analyses, but this spreadsheet of intelligence targets. Here we learn the specific telephone numbers being targeted, who owns those phone numbers, the office within the NSA that processes the raw communications received, why the target is being spied on (in this case, all are designated as “Germany: Political Affairs”), and when we started spying using this particular justification. It’s one of the few glimpses we have into the bureaucracy of surveillance.

Presumably this is from the same leaker who gave WikiLeaks the French intercepts they published a week ago. (And you can read the intelligence target spreadsheet for France, too. And another for Brazil that WikiLeaks published on Saturday; Intercept commentary here.) Now that we’ve seen a few top secret summaries of eavesdropping on German, French, and Brazilian communications, and given what I know of Julian Assange’s tactics, my guess is that there is a lot more where this came from.

Der Spiegel is all over this story.

Posted on July 6, 2015 at 5:13 AMView Comments

Yet Another Leaker—with the NSA's French Intercepts

Wikileaks has published some NSA SIGINT documents describing intercepted French government communications. This seems not be from the Snowden documents. It could be one of the other NSA leakers, or it could be someone else entirely.

As leaks go, this isn’t much. As I’ve said before, spying on foreign leaders is the kind of thing we want the NSA to do. I’m sure French Intelligence does the same to us.

EDITED TO ADD (6/25): To me, more interesting than the intercepts is the spreadsheet of NSA surveillance targets. That spreadsheet gives us a glimpse into the US process of surveillance: what US government office initially asked for the surveillance, what NSA office is tasked with analyzing the intelligence collected, where a particular target is on the priorities list, and so on.

Posted on June 25, 2015 at 12:51 PMView Comments

Leaked CIA Documents

I haven’t seen much press mention about the leaked CIA documents that have appeared on WikiLeaks this month.

There are three:

These documents are more general than what we’ve seen from Snowden, but—assuming they’re real—these are still national-security leaks. You’d think there would be more news about this, and more reaction from the US government.

Posted on December 29, 2014 at 6:22 AMView Comments

State Department Redacts Wikileaks Cables

The ACLU filed a FOIA request for a bunch of cables that Wikileaks had already released complete versions of. This is what happened:

The agency released redacted versions of 11 and withheld the other 12 in full.

The five excerpts below show the government’s selective and self-serving decisions to withhold information. Because the leaked versions of these cables have already been widely distributed, the redacted releases provide unique insight into the government’s selective decisions to hide information from the American public.

Click on the link to see what was redacted.

EDITED TO ADD (3/2): Commentary:

The Freedom of Information Act provides exceptions for a number of classes of information, but the State Department’s declassification decisions appear to be based not on the criteria specified in the statute, but rather on whether the documents embarrass the US or portray the US in a negative light.

Posted on March 1, 2012 at 1:32 PMView Comments

"Going Dark" vs. a "Golden Age of Surveillance"

It’s a policy debate that’s been going on since the crypto wars of the early 1990s. The FBI, NSA, and other agencies continue to claim they’re losing their ability to engage in surveillance: that it’s “going dark.” Whether the cause of the problem is encrypted e-mail, digital telephony, or Skype, the bad guys use it to communicate, so we need to pass laws like CALEA to force these services to be made insecure, so that the government can eavesdrop.

The counter-argument is the “Golden Age of Surveillance”—that the massive increase of online data and Internet communications systems gives the government a far greater ability to eavesdrop on our lives. They can get your e-mail from Google, regardless of whether you use encryption. They can install an eavesdropping program on your computer, regardless of whether you use Skype. They can monitor your Facebook conversations, and learn thing that just weren’t online a decade ago. Today we all carry devices that tract our locations 24/7: our cell phones.

In this essay, CDT fellows (and law professors) challenge the “going dark” metaphor and make the case for “the golden age of surveillance.” Yes, wiretapping is harder; but so many other types of surveillance are easier.

A simple test can help the reader decide between the “going dark” and “golden age of surveillance” hypotheses. Suppose the agencies had a choice of a 1990-era package or a 2011-era package. The first package would include the wiretap authorities as they existed pre-encryption, but would lack the new techniques for location tracking, confederate identification, access to multiple databases, and data mining. The second package would match current capabilities: some encryption-related obstacles, but increased use of wiretaps, as well as the capabilities for location tracking, confederate tracking and data mining. The second package is clearly superior—the new surveillance tools assist a vast range of investigations, whereas wiretaps apply only to a small subset of key investigations. The new tools are used far more frequently and provide granular data to assist investigators.

A longer and more detailed version of the same argument can be found in “Encryption and Globalization,” forthcoming in the Columbia Science and Technology Law Review.

In a related story, there’s a relatively new WikiLeaks data dump of documents related to government surveillance products.

Posted on January 13, 2012 at 6:58 AMView Comments

Fake Documents that Alarm if Opened

This sort of thing seems like a decent approach, but it has a lot of practical problems:

In the wake of Wikileaks, the Department of Defense has stepped up its game to stop leaked documents from making their way into the hands of undesirables—be they enemy forces or concerned citizens. A new piece of software has created a way to do this by generating realistic, fake documents that phone home when they’re accessed, serving the dual purpose of providing false intelligence and helping identify the culprit.

Details aside, this kind of thing falls into the general category of data tracking. It doesn’t even have to be fake documents; you could imagine some sort of macro embedded into Word or pdf documents that phones home when the document is opened. (I have no idea if you actually can do it with those formats, but the concept is plausible.) This allows the owner of a document to track when, and possibly by what computer, a document is opened.

But by far the biggest drawback from this tech is the possibility of false positives. If you seed a folder full of documents with a large number of fakes, how often do you think an authorized user will accidentally double click on the wrong file? And what if they act on the false information? Sure, this will prevent hackers from blindly trusting that every document on a server is correct, but we bet it won’t take much to look into the code of a document and spot the fake, either.

I’m less worried about false positives, and more concerned by how easy it is to get around this sort of thing. Detach your computer from the Internet, and the document no longer phones home. A fix is to combine the system with an encryption scheme that requires a remote key. Now the document has to phone home before it can be viewed. Of course, once someone is authorized to view the document, it would be easy to create an unprotected copy—screen captures, if nothing else—to forward along,

While potentially interesting, this sort of technology is not going to prevent large data leaks. But it’s good to see research.

Posted on November 7, 2011 at 6:26 AMView Comments

Unredacted U.S. Diplomatic WikiLeaks Cables Published

It looks as if the entire mass of U.S. diplomatic cables that WikiLeaks had is available online somewhere. How this came about is a good illustration of how security can go wrong in ways you don’t expect.

Near as I can tell, this is what happened:

  1. In order to send the Guardian the cables, WikiLeaks encrypted them and put them on its website at a hidden URL.
  2. WikiLeaks sent the Guardian the URL.
  3. WikiLeaks sent the Guardian the encryption key.
  4. The Guardian downloaded and decrypted the file.
  5. WikiLeaks removed the file from their server.
  6. Somehow, the encrypted file ends up on BitTorrent. Perhaps someone found the hidden URL, downloaded the file, and then uploaded it to BitTorrent. Perhaps it is the “insurance file.” I don’t know.
  7. The Guardian published a book about WikiLeaks. Thinking the decryption key had no value, it published the key in the book.
  8. A reader used the key from the book to decrypt the archive from BitTorrent, and published the decrypted version: all the U.S. diplomatic cables in unredacted form.

Memo to the Guardian: Publishing encryption keys is almost always a bad idea. Memo to WikiLeaks: Using the same key for the Guardian and for the insurance file—if that’s what you did—was a bad idea.

EDITED TO ADD (9/1): From pp 138-9 of WikiLeaks:

Assange wrote down on a scrap of paper: ACollectionOfHistorySince_1966_ToThe_PresentDay#. “That’s the password,” he said. “But you have to add one extra word when you type it in. You have to put in the word ‘Diplomatic’ before the word ‘History’. Can you remember that?”

I think we can all agree that that’s a secure encryption key.

EDITED TO ADD (9/1): WikiLeaks says that the Guardian file and the insurance file are not encrypted with the same key. Which brings us back to the question: how did the encrypted Guardian file get loose?

EDITED TO ADD (9/1): Spiegel has the detailed story.

Posted on September 1, 2011 at 12:56 PMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.