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On the DNC-FBI Spat Over the DNC Server

The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense issued a statement in response to the media coverage following the CrowdStrike claim that malware in an artillery app had a role in massive casualties among Ukraine’s howitzer units. The Google translation (note, it has not yet been translated into English, which itself may say something about intended audience) of it reads,

In connection with the emergence in some media reports which stated that the alleged “80% howitzer D-30 Armed Forces of Ukraine removed through scrapping Russian Ukrainian hackers software gunners,” Land Forces Command of the Armed Forces of Ukraine informs that the said information is incorrect .

According Command Missile Forces and Artillery Land Forces of Ukraine, artillery weapons lost during the time of ATO times smaller than the above and are not associated with the specified cause. Currently, troops Missile Forces and Artillery Army Forces of Ukraine fully combat-ready, staffed and able to fulfill the missions.

Ministry of Defence of Ukraine asks journalists to publish only verified information received from the competent official sources. Spreading false information leads to increased social tension in society and undermines public confidence in the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

Understand what this is: it is in no way a denial that malware infected the artillery app (though it’s also, given that it comes from a country at war with Russia that wants people to stop using this to implicate Russia, not confirmation the malware is Russian). Rather, it is a correction for local journalists to an avowedly pro-Russian source used by Crowdstrike claiming that Ukraine faced 80% losses. And it is a statement that artillery losses from the period in question are due to something else (perhaps the drones that Crowdstrike admitted were involved in the fighting).

Mostly, it’s a complaint that Crowdstrike’s speculative report made Ukraine look bad. As I’ve noted, the report was released before Crowdstrike had spoken to the app developer (and as this statement makes clear, to Ukraine’s MOD), to explain why its previously “medium” confidence that GRU had hacked the DNC was now “high.”

I raise all that as background to the spat Buzzfeed’s Ali Watkins reported on yesterday between the DNC and FBI. In the morning, she reported the DNC claim that the FBI had inexplicably never, itself, accessed the DNC servers.

Six months after the FBI first said it was investigating the hack of the Democratic National Committee’s computer network, the bureau has still not requested access to the hacked servers, a DNC spokesman said. No US government entity has run an independent forensic analysis on the system, one US intelligence official told BuzzFeed News.

“The DNC had several meetings with representatives of the FBI’s Cyber Division and its Washington (DC) Field Office, the Department of Justice’s National Security Division, and U.S. Attorney’s Offices, and it responded to a variety of requests for cooperation, but the FBI never requested access to the DNC’s computer servers,” Eric Walker, the DNC’s deputy communications director, told BuzzFeed News in an email.

Over the course of the day, many people explained that that’s fairly normal. Crowdstrike would have imaged the server, which would provide FBI what it needed.

But the snipe to Watkins was not the first time DNC has presented their case in a light that makes FBI look as bad as possible — they did that with the NYT, too. And so it was inevitable that the FBI would eventually push back, as they did later in the day with Watkins.

“The FBI repeatedly stressed to DNC officials the necessity of obtaining direct access to servers and data, only to be rebuffed until well after the initial compromise had been mitigated. This left the FBI no choice but to rely upon a third party for information,” a senior law enforcement official told BuzzFeed News in a statement. “These actions caused significant delays and inhibited the FBI from addressing the intrusion earlier.”

Which promptly led the same DNC that originally leaked a claim making the FBI look bad to bitch about “haters.”

A DNC source familiar with the investigation tried to downplay that report on Thursday, hours before the FBI statement was issued. The fact that the FBI didn’t have direct access to the servers was not “significant,” the source said.

“I just don’t think that that’s really material or an important thing,” the source continued. “They had what they needed. There are always haters out here.”

In general, I think people are right that you can learn what you need to about a typical breach from an imaged server and the server logs. Indeed, the FBI rebuttal here doesn’t even address whether they needed to get the server. Rather, they just said that there was a delay in their access to the data, not that they didn’t eventually get the data they needed.

And it’s true that there was a delay.

FBI gave the DNC the information they needed to start responding to the FSB hack in September 2015, but the FBI wasn’t brought in formally until maybe June 2016. That doesn’t necessarily excuse that they didn’t escalate sooner (the FBI may have had other reasons not to and I expect we may one day learn that the FBI contacted people beyond just the contractor IT guy), but it does mean that the FBI repeatedly tried to help and the DNC did not accept that help until months later.

Underlying all this is surely the distrust that stems from a political party believing the FBI was conducting a witch hunt of its principal (they’d be proven right a month after the breach became public), though the FBI agents investigating the DNC hack were surely different than the ones investigating Hillary’s server. There may have even been other reasons the DNC didn’t want the FBI nosing around their servers.

Still, we now know they did not ever access DNC’s servers themselves.

And I think in this case they should have, for two reasons.

The Hill story covering this bickering includes this quote from a former FBI agent describing one reason why.

“In nine out of 10 cases, we don’t need access, we don’t ask for access, we don’t get access. That’s the normal [procedure],” Leo Taddeo, a former special agent in charge of the cyber division of the FBI’s New York office, told The Hill.

“It’s extraordinarily rare for the FBI to get access to the victim’s infrastructure because we could mess it up,” he added. “We usually ask for the logs and images, and 99 out of a hundred times, that’s sufficient.”

Asking for direct access to a server wouldn’t be necessary, Taddeo said, “unless there was a reason to think the victim was going to alter the evidence in some way.”

You don’t need access to the server itself unless you’ve got reason to believe the victim altered the evidence. From the very first, you had an entity, Guccifer 2.0, challenging the attribution Crowdstrike made on the server. Abundant analysis has proven that Guccifer is a liar, but Chinese and Iranians and Americans lie just as often as Russians do.

Plus, months after the hack, people started claiming that the source for the files that got to Wikileaks came from an insider. Which, if true (I don’t think it is, but nevertheless it is a competing theory, one that given the animosity within the Democratic party last year is not impossible), would mean that the victim might have altered the evidence.

There’s another reason why the FBI should have double checked the forensics, if they hadn’t already: because (we learned six months after the fact) Crowdstrike only ever had medium confidence that GRU had hacked the DNC based on the forensics they examined.

While CrowdStrike, which was hired by the DNC to investigate the intrusions and whose findings are described in a new report, had always suspected that one of the two hacker groups that struck the DNC was the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, it had only medium confidence.

Now, said CrowdStrike co-founder Dmitri Alperovitch, “we have high confidence” it was a unit of the GRU. CrowdStrike had dubbed that unit “Fancy Bear.”

And Crowdstrike only came to have high confidence in that attribution by writing a paper that multiple Ukrainian sources (not exactly Russian shills) have now pushed back on. That is, nothing in the original forensics changed, as far as we know; external evidence, of whatever quality, led to a change in confidence.

Which means the forensics itself is not a slam dunk.

I’m beginning to see a hole in all the other security firms’ validation of Crowdstrike’s original attribution, which I hope to return to (though not before next week). In any case, it’d be useful for FBI to have really vetted this work, given that we’ve turned this into an international incident.

So, yeah, the FBI never obtained the DNC server full of political information the government really shouldn’t possess, particularly not an agency perceived to be really hostile to that political party.

But maybe, in this case, they should have.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

Sanctioning GRU … and FSB

While I was out and about today, President Obama rolled out his sanctions against Russia to retaliate for the Russian hack of Democrats this year. Effectively, the White House sanctioned two Russian intelligence agencies (GRU — Main Intelligence, and FSB –Federal Security Service), top leaders from one of them, and two named hackers.

In addition to sanctioning GRU, the White House also sanctioned FSB. I find that interesting because (as I laid out here), GRU has always been blamed for the theft of the DNC and John Podesta documents that got leaked to WikiLeaks. While FSB also hacked the DNC, there’s no public indication that it did anything aside from collect information — the kind of hacking the NSA and CIA do all the time (and have done during other countries’ elections). Indeed, as the original Crowdstrike report described, FSB and GRU weren’t coordinating while snooping around the DNC server.

At DNC, COZY BEAR intrusion has been identified going back to summer of 2015, while FANCY BEAR separately breached the network in April 2016. We have identified no collaboration between the two actors, or even an awareness of one by the other. Instead, we observed the two Russian espionage groups compromise the same systems and engage separately in the theft of identical credentials. While you would virtually never see Western intelligence agencies going after the same target without de-confliction for fear of compromising each other’s operations, in Russia this is not an uncommon scenario. “Putin’s Hydra: Inside Russia’s Intelligence Services”, a recent paper from European Council on Foreign Relations, does an excellent job outlining the highly adversarial relationship between Russia’s main intelligence services – Федеральная Служба Безопасности (FSB), the primary domestic intelligence agency but one with also significant external collection and ‘active measures’ remit, Служба Внешней Разведки (SVR), the primary foreign intelligence agency, and the aforementioned GRU. Not only do they have overlapping areas of responsibility, but also rarely share intelligence and even occasionally steal sources from each other and compromise operations. Thus, it is not surprising to see them engage in intrusions against the same victim, even when it may be a waste of resources and lead to the discovery and potential compromise of mutual operations.

Data provided by FireEye to War on the Rocks much later in the year suggested that the DNC hack was the only time both showed up in a server, which it took to mean the opposite of what Crowdstrike had, particularly high degree of coordination.

According to data provided for this article by the private cybersecurity company, FireEye, two separate but coordinated teams under the Kremlin are running the campaign. APT 28, also known as “FancyBear,” has been tied to Russia’s foreign military intelligence agency, the Main Intelligence Agency or GRU. APT 29, aka “CozyBear,” has been tied to the Federal Security Service or FSB. Both have been actively targeting the United States. According to FireEye, they have only appeared in the same systems once, which suggests a high level of coordination — a departure from what we have seen and come to expect from Russian intelligence.

The sanctioning materials offers only this explanation for the FSB sanction: “The Federal Security Service (a.k.a. Federalnaya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti) (a.k.a FSB) assisted the GRU in conducting the activities described above.”

So I’m not sure what to make of the fact that FSB was sanctioned along with GRU. Perhaps it means there was some kind of serial hack, with FSB identifying an opportunity that GRU then implemented — the more extensive coordination that FireEye claims. Perhaps it means the US has decided it’s going to start sanctioning garden variety information collection of the type the US does.

But I do find it an interesting aspect of the sanctions.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

CloudStrike’s Own Announcement Makes It Clear It Doesn’t Have Proof of Ongoing Chinese Economic Cyberattacks

Many many many outlets are reporting that China has continued conducting economic espionage even after Xi Jinping agreed to stop doing it. They base that claim on this post from CloudStrike, a big cybersecurity contractor that spends a lot of time feeding the press scary stories about hacking.

Here’s the proof they offer:

Over the last three weeks, CrowdStrike Falcon platform has detected and prevented a number of intrusions into our customers’ systems from actors we have affiliated with the Chinese government. Seven of the companies are firms in the Technology or Pharmaceuticals sectors, where the primary benefit of the intrusions seems clearly aligned to facilitate theft of intellectual property and trade secrets, rather than to conduct traditional national-security related intelligence collection which the Cyber agreement does not prohibit.

[snip]

In addition to preventing these intrusions, the CrowdStrike Falcon platform also provided full visibility into every tool, command and technique used by the adversary. This allowed us to determine that the hackers saw no need to change their usual tradecraft or previously used infrastructure in an attempt to throw off their scent.

The include a timeline showing 9 attempted intrusions into Tech Sector companies, and 2 into Pharma companies since Xi and President Obama signed the hacking agreement.

Now, even assuming that CrowdStrike has accurately labeled these Chinese government hackers (CrowdStrike’s CTO was less confident in an interview with Motherboard) this still is not proof that China has violated the agreement.

After all, the key part of the agreement is on how stolen information gets used — whether it gets used to benefit individual companies or even entire sectors (the latter of which we do in our own spying, but never mind). If CrowdStrike prevented any data from being stolen, then it is impossible to assert that it was being stolen to benefit market actors without more evidence that the hackers were tasked by a market actor. Even the indictment everyone points to as proof that China engages in economic espionage did not allege that the People Liberation’s Army had shared the data involved in the single economic espionage charge with private sector companies, and given that the data in question pertained to nuclear technology ,it’s not something that is proven just because it was stolen in the context of an ongoing relationship with the victim (even if that is a logical presumption to make).

The same is true here. When China hacked Google to spy on dissidents, that was clearly national security spying. When the US hacked Huawei to figure out how to backdoor its equipment, that was clearly national security spying.When the US used Microsoft and Siemens products to carry out StuxNet, the tech companies were merely enabling targets. There are too many reasons to hack tech sector companies for solidly national security purposes to claim, just based on the sector itself, that it was done for economic espionage.

You can’t even point to the 2 Pharma intrusions to make the claim. A list of sites the State Department identified as critical infrastructure from a leaked 2009 cable includes over 25 pharmaceutical sites (including animal Pharma), many of them related to vaccines. If we’re treating pharmaceutical supply and research facilities as critical infrastructure, with the presumed consequent defensive surveillance of those sites, it is tough to argue the Chinese can’t consider our pharmaceutical companies making key drugs to be critical targets. Both can be argued to stem from the same public health concerns.

I’m not saying it’s impossible or even unlikely that these intrusions were attempted economic espionage. I’m saying that this isn’t evidence of it, and that the reporting repeating this claim has been far too credulous.

But that also points to one of the inherent problems with this deal (one pointed to by many people at the time). When last he testified on the subject, Jim Clapper didn’t even claim to have fully attributed the OPM hack. The same attribution and use problems exist here. China may steal data on an important new drug, but that’s not going to be enough to prove they stole it for commercial gain until they release their own copycat of the drug in several years and use it to undercut the US company’s product, and even then that may require a lot more data — collected by spying! — from inside the market companies themselves (in part because China engages in many other means of stealing data which aren’t the subject of a special agreement, which will make even the copycat instance hard to prove came from an intrusion).

China knew that, too, when it signed the agreement. It will take more than evidence of 11 attempted intrusions to prove that China is violating the agreement.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.