Shadow Brokers

 

nsa_meade

ABC News had an interesting story yesterday about a hacker group called “Shadow Brokers” releasing information related to the National Security Agency loss of some of it’s most closely guarded hacker tools.

OK maybe not that closely guarded. Per the article:

“A group calling itself “Shadow Brokers” says it has released another gem from its trove of high-level hacking tools stolen from the U.S.’s National Security Agency, potentially offering added insight into how America’s spies operate online.

The leak discloses NSA-style codenames — including “Jackladder” and “Dewdrop”— and carries internet protocol information about scores of organizations, many based in Japan, China and South Korea, according to several experts who have examined the data.”

It looks like yet another embarrassment for the NSA, which seems to have generated plenty over the past few years.  When hacker groups get to troll the NSA with their own hacking tools, it’s like getting a wedgie and being stuffed in a locker for that most secret of American spy agencies.  This caught my eye:

“The Intercept, an investigative publication with access to NSA material leaked by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, later confirmed Shadow Brokers’ tools were really from the NSA by cross-referencing the leaked data with information held in a previously unpublished top secret manual.”

That seems to tell me that intimate knowledge of these hacker tools have been out there since Snowden defected.  Glenn Greenwald may not have published the details in The Guardian, but I’m sure whatever laptop he kept Snowden’s data on was a target of every intelligence agency in the world, so the entire worldwide intelligence community must have been aware of some of the specifics of these hacker tools for years.

And then, somehow, these tools got released.

At some point.

That gets kind of cloudy.  It was revealed publicly a few months ago that not only had the hacking tools been leaked, but that it may have been due to carelessness.

“Embarrassingly, an investigation into the matter has revealed that a NSA operative may have inadvertently left the hacking tools in question on a remote computer, effectively leaving it behind as a gift to whomever discovered it.”

At this point, maybe it’s time for the NSA to wear a dunce cap and sit in the corner?

But wait, there’s more:

“Interestingly enough, a U.S. operative is said to have left the hacking tools behind about three years ago.”

Now I wonder what else happened in the intelligence community three years ago?  That’s right, that’s when Snowden defected.  Now at seems a bit of a coincidence to me that at about the same time Edward Snowden began his ‘round the world defection tour that in a totally unrelated incident, some random NSA employee loses a laptop containing some of the most valuable hacking software in the world.

Now here is where I get confused.  Harold Martin III, an NSA contractor employed by Booz Allen Hamilton was arrested in August for pilfering an unbelievable amount of classified material that he had stolen from work and was keeping at home.  Per The New York Times:

 “Investigators pursuing what they believe to be the largest case of mishandling classified documents in United States history have found that the huge trove of stolen documents in the possession of a National Security Agency contractor included top-secret N.S.A. hacking tools that two months ago were offered for sale on the internet.

They have been hunting for electronic clues that could link those cybertools — computer code posted online for auction by an anonymous group calling itself the Shadow Brokers — to the home computers of the contractor, Harold T. Martin III, who was arrested in late August on charges of theft of government property and mishandling of classified information.”

So this is why I’m confused.  The FBI is trying to make a case that Martin sold or tried to sell NSA hacking tools to the Shadow Brokers hacking group; the same hacking tools that were inadvertently lost three years ago?

“But so far, the investigators have been frustrated in their attempt to prove that Mr. Martin deliberately leaked or sold the hacking tools to the Shadow Brokers or, alternatively, that someone hacked into his computer or otherwise took them without his knowledge.”

The tools were lost three years ago.  The FBI thinks that Martin sold them to the hacker group, and per the ABC article, everyone agrees that the hacker group Shadow Brokers does have the hacking tools right?

Somebody can’t keep their story straight.  Did the Shadow Brokers get the tools from the loss from three years ago or from Martin more recently?  And is Martin that good that if he did sell the tools, he left no tracks, including payment?  Since he’s sitting in jail, facing a lifetime of more of the same, it would seem that he would have an incentive to cut a deal.

Let me posit an alternative explanation.  I won’t even call it a theory since I have no evidence or no knowledge one way or the other.  But try this on for size:

When the after action on Snowden’s stolen material was reviewed, it becomes clear that a technical manual that has specific information about the NSA hacking tools was part of Snowden’s stolen intelligence material.  Greenwald never published it, no doubt because it was technical and he had no idea what it was, but just having it in his possession made the material vulnerable since Greenwald became a target for every intelligence agency in the world once it went public that Snowden gave him all of his ill gotten gains.

So the information on the hacking tools is out there, even if the tools themselves are not.  But there is no doubt enough technical data that would make it possible for a sophisticated intelligence service to perhaps identify and defend from those particular tools. So maybe, just maybe, the NSA wants to muddy the waters a bit by “losing” their tools, only to be found by a hacking group which then brags about having them and uses them to intrude into systems worldwide.

So…what if the tools were never lost, or stolen by Martin?  What if it’s an elaborate setup to create a black hat hacking group, that can be the fall guy for failed or identified computer systems intrusions?  Since the technical manual stolen by Snowden is out there, that means the useful shelf life of these hacking tools are limited, so an entirely new set of software has to be created, but that takes time.  In the meantime, there is a fall guy for failed or identified computer intrusion operations, the Shadow Brokers.  Wouldn’t it be ironic if the Shadow Brokers are nothing but a creation of the Shadow Factory?

Do I think this is likely?  Sadly no.  It’s more hope than anything else. Or it’s a good episode of The Blacklist or Scorpion.  But I would rather believe that as opposed to the alternative public explanation that not only did the NSA lose information on almost every major intelligence program to Snowden, but that it lost the US technical edge in cyber warfare to an accident.

 

Arrogance of Trust

The news that Edward Snowden had somehow managed to persuade 20 to 25 of his fellow colleagues at the NSA to give up their passwords and login information has probably shocked IT professionals and corporate security types.  “What kind of slipshod IT security is the NSA running?”  Could the smartest guys in the room really be so dumb and trusting?  As Reuters reports:

Snowden may have persuaded between 20 and 25 fellow workers at the NSA regional operations center in Hawaii to give him their logins and passwords by telling them they were needed for him to do his job as a computer systems administrator, a second source said.

This may seem incredible to those involved in information assurance that a system administrator, who had only been at the job a few months, could talk that many people out of their passwords.  Don’t these people have any information security training?  Every company IT department  teaches its employees to never share their password information.  Didn’t these guys have any training?

Headquarters of the NSA at Fort Meade, Marylan...

Headquarters of the NSA at Fort Meade, Maryland. Español: Instalaciones generales de la NSA en Fort Meade, Maryland. Русский: Штаб-квартира АНБ, Форт-Мид, Мэриленд, США (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It turns out they do.  The Department of Defense, which the National Security Agency falls under, has extensive computer security training.  But that only begs the question further.  Snowden was so new at his base in Hawaii that he probably didn’t have any long term personal relationships to play on in order to trick people out of their passwords.  But I don’t think he needed to trick anyone.  And I think I know why.

I should preface this by saying this is just my personal opinion, but I think the popular idea of intelligence agencies and organizations, at least American ones, as a font of constant paranoia, looking over your shoulder at all times, and a lack of trust between co-workers, as depicted in movies and popular culture (think the Bourne movies) is totally opposite of the real situation.  I think the security problem in US intelligence organizations, which Snowden exploited, is that everyone trusts each other too much.

Security Clearances for Top Secret and above levels cost thousands of dollars and can take months to complete.  Once you have a security clearance, it’s not only a marketable item, but it’s sort of a short hand as to what kind of character you have.  Although it actually means you’ve mostly stayed out of trouble and have not screwed up too much, it’s taken as a certificate of approval that this person is trustworthy and of good character.  So if you work in a classified facility, surrounded by cleared people, some of them may strike you as crazy, or unpleasant, but not thieves, not crooks, and not traitors.  Why?  It’s nothing they did, it’s simply from the fact that they are working there; they’ve been vetted.

Once you are on the inside, you are part of special limited clique, in which everyone on the inside of the vault door holds secret knowledge that those on the other side of the vault door don’t know, and can’t know.  It’s like being part of Skull and Bones, only instead of knowing secret arcane nonsense; you know real things about the world that matter.  That dividing line between those on the inside of the door and those on the outside is huge.

One of the first things they teach you in Basic Training and Boot Camp is to keep you locker and money locked up and secure at all times. Even the camaraderie of military service isn’t enough to be sure your buddy won’t grab your wallet in an act of desperation. But like Singapore, if you decide to leave your wallet on your desk at work in your secured facility, you can mostly be assured that it will still be there, undisturbed, when you come back from break.  Having many roommates in the past with security clearances, I never worried for a second about leaving money or valuables around out in the open. I may have worried if they would clean up the kitchen after fixing dinner, or vanishing for days on end, but I never worried that they would steal from me.  I granted them an automatic level of trust that most keep within close family members.

And maybe that’s the problem.  In spite of all the security, and in spite of all the rules and security procedures, it doesn’t mean a thing unless people can operate with even a normal level of caution.  In my corporate environment I would never turn over my password to anyone, system administrator or otherwise.  But if I was back in the classified world, inside that insular level of trust, I can’t be sure how I would react.  And the fact that I would even question that is the problem.

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