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The Compartments in WaPo’s Russian Hack Magnum Opus

The WaPo has an 8300 word opus on the Obama Administration’s response to Russian tampering in the election. The article definitely covers new ground on the Obama effort to respond while avoiding making things worse, particularly with regards to imposing sanctions in December. It also largely lays out much of the coverage the three bylined journalists (Greg Miller, Ellen Nakashima, and Adam Entous) have broken before, with new details. The overall message of the article, which has a number of particular viewpoints and silences, is this: Moscow is getting away with their attack.

“[B]ecause of the divergent ways Obama and Trump have handled the matter, Moscow appears unlikely to face proportionate consequences.”

The Immaculate Interception: CIA’s scoop

WaPo starts its story about how Russia got away with its election op with an exchange designed to make the non-response to the attack seem all the more senseless. It provides a dramatic description of a detail these very same reporters broke on December 9: Putin, who was personally directing this effort, was trying to elect Trump.

Early last August, an envelope with extraordinary handling restrictions arrived at the White House. Sent by courier from the CIA, it carried “eyes only” instructions that its contents be shown to just four people: President Barack Obama and three senior aides.

Inside was an intelligence bombshell, a report drawn from sourcing deep inside the Russian government that detailed Russian President Vladi­mir Putin’s direct involvement in a cyber campaign to disrupt and discredit the U.S. presidential race.

[snip]

The material was so sensitive that CIA Director John Brennan kept it out of the President’s Daily Brief, concerned that even that restricted report’s distribution was too broad. The CIA package came with instructions that it be returned immediately after it was read.

[snip]

In early August, Brennan alerted senior White House officials to the Putin intelligence, making a call to deputy national security adviser Avril Haines and pulling national security adviser Susan Rice side after a meeting before briefing Obama along with Rice, Haines and McDonough in the Oval Office.

While the sharing of this information with just three aides adds to the drama, WaPo doesn’t consider something else about it. The inclusion of Rice and McDonough totally makes sense. But by including Avril Haines, Brennan was basically including his former Deputy Director who had moved onto the DNSA position, effectively putting two CIA people in a room with two White House people and the President. Significantly, Lisa Monaco — who had Brennan’s old job as White House Homeland Security Czar and who came from DOJ and FBI before that — was reportedly excluded from this initial briefing.

There are a number of other interesting details about all this. First, for thousands of wordspace, the WaPo presents this intelligence as irreproachable, even while providing this unconvincing explanation of why, if it is so secret and solid, the CIA was willing to let WaPo put it on its front page.

For spy agencies, gaining insights into the intentions of foreign leaders is among the highest priorities. But Putin is a remarkably elusive target. A former KGB officer, he takes extreme precautions to guard against surveillance, rarely communicating by phone or computer, always running sensitive state business from deep within the confines of the Kremlin.

The Washington Post is withholding some details of the intelligence at the request of the U.S. government.

If this intelligence is so sensitive, why is even the timing of its collection being revealed here, much less its access to Putin?

That seemingly contradictory action is all the more curious given that not all agencies were as impressed with this intelligence as CIA was. It’s not until much, much later in its report until WaPo explains what remains true as recently as Admiral Rogers’ latest Congressional testimony: the NSA wasn’t and isn’t as convinced by CIA’s super secret intelligence as CIA was.

Despite the intelligence the CIA had produced, other agencies were slower to endorse a conclusion that Putin was personally directing the operation and wanted to help Trump. “It was definitely compelling, but it was not definitive,” said one senior administration official. “We needed more.”

Some of the most critical technical intelligence on Russia came from another country, officials said. Because of the source of the material, the NSA was reluctant to view it with high confidence.

By the time this detail is presented, the narrative is in place: Obama failed to respond adequately to the attack that CIA warned about back in August.

The depiction of this top-level compartment of just Brennan, Rice, McDonough, and Haines is interesting background, as well, for the depiction of the way McDonough undermined a State Department plan to institute a Special Commission before Donald Trump got started.

Supporters’ confidence was buoyed when McDonough signaled that he planned to “tabledrop” the proposal at the next NSC meeting, one that would be chaired by Obama. Kerry was overseas and participated by videoconference.

To some, the “tabledrop” term has a tactical connotation beyond the obvious. It is sometimes used as a means of securing approval of an idea by introducing it before opponents have a chance to form counterarguments.

“We thought this was a good sign,” a former State Department official said.

But as soon as McDonough introduced the proposal for a commission, he began criticizing it, arguing that it would be perceived as partisan and almost certainly blocked by Congress.

Obama then echoed McDonough’s critique, effectively killing any chance that a Russia commission would be formed.

Effectively, McDonough upended the table on those (which presumably includes the CIA) who wanted to preempt regular process.

Finally, even after  these three WaPo journalists foreground their entire narrative with CIA’s super duper scoop (that NSA is still not 100% convinced is one), they don’t describe their own role in changing the tenor of the response on December 9 by reporting the first iteration of this story.

“By December, those of us working on this for a long time were demoralized,” said an administration official involved in the developing punitive options.

Then the tenor began to shift.

On Dec. 9, Obama ordered a comprehensive review by U.S. intelligence agencies of Russian interference in U.S. elections going back to 2008, with a plan to make some of the findings public.

The WaPo’s report of the CIA’s intelligence changed the tenor back in December, and this story about the absence of a response might change the tenor here.

Presenting the politics ahead of the intelligence

The WaPo’s foregrounding of Brennan’s August scoop is also important for the way they portray the parallel streams of the intelligence and political response. It portrays the Democrats’ political complaints about Republicans in this story, most notably the suggestion that Mitch McConnell refused to back a more public statement about the Russian operation when Democrats were pushing for one in September. That story, in part because of McConnell’s silence, has become accepted as true.

Except the WaPo’s own story provides ample evidence that the Democrats were trying to get ahead of the formal intelligence community with respect to attribution, both in the summer, when Clapper only alluded to Russian involvement.

Even after the late-July WikiLeaks dump, which came on the eve of the Democratic convention and led to the resignation of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) as the DNC’s chairwoman, U.S. intelligence officials continued to express uncertainty about who was behind the hacks or why they were carried out.

At a public security conference in Aspen, Colo., in late July, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. noted that Russia had a long history of meddling in American elections but that U.S. spy agencies were not ready to “make the call on attribution” for what was happening in 2016.

And, more importantly, in the fall, when the public IC attribution came only after McConnell refused to join a more aggressive statement because the intelligence did not yet support it (WaPo makes no mention of it, but DHS’s public reporting from late September still attributed the the threat to election infrastructure to “cybercriminals and criminal hackers”).

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) went further, officials said, voicing skepticism that the underlying intelligence truly supported the White House’s claims. Through a spokeswoman, McConnell declined to comment, citing the secrecy of that meeting.

Key Democrats were stunned by the GOP response and exasperated that the White House seemed willing to let Republican opposition block any pre-election move.

On Sept. 22, two California Democrats — Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Adam B. Schiff — did what they couldn’t get the White House to do. They issued a statement making clear that they had learned from intelligence briefings that Russia was directing a campaign to undermine the election, but they stopped short of saying to what end.

A week later, McConnell and other congressional leaders issued a cautious statement that encouraged state election officials to ensure their networks were “secure from attack.” The release made no mention of Russia and emphasized that the lawmakers “would oppose any effort by the federal government” to encroach on the states’ authorities.

When U.S. spy agencies reached unanimous agreement in late September that the interference was a Russian operation directed by Putin, Obama directed spy chiefs to prepare a public statement summarizing the intelligence in broad strokes.

I’m all in favor of beating up McConnell, but there is no reason to demand members of Congress precede the IC with formal attribution for something like this. So until October 7, McConnell had cover (if not justification) for refusing to back a stronger statement.

And while the report describes Brennan’s efforts to brief members of Congress (and the reported reluctance of Republicans to meet with him), it doesn’t answer what remains a critical and open question: whether Brennan’s briefing for Harry Reid was different — and more inflammatory — than his briefing for Republicans, and whether that was partly designed to get Reid to serve as a proxy attacker on Jim Comey and the FBI.

Brennan moved swiftly to schedule private briefings with congressional leaders. But getting appointments with certain Republicans proved difficult, officials said, and it was not until after Labor Day that Brennan had reached all members of the “Gang of Eight” — the majority and minority leaders of both houses and the chairmen and ranking Democrats on the Senate and House intelligence committees.

Nor does this account explain another thing: why Brennan serially briefed the Gang of Eight, when past experience is to brief them in groups, if not all together.

In short, while the WaPo provides new details on the parallel intelligence and political tracks, it reinforces its own narrative while remaining silent on some details that are critical to that narrative.

The compartments

The foregrounding of CIA in all this also raises questions about a new and important detail about (what I assume to be the subsequently publicly revealed, though this is not made clear) Task Force investigating this operation: it lives at CIA, not FBI.

Brennan convened a secret task force at CIA headquarters composed of several dozen analysts and officers from the CIA, the NSA and the FBI.

The unit functioned as a sealed compartment, its work hidden from the rest of the intelligence community. Those brought in signed new non-disclosure agreements to be granted access to intelligence from all three participating agencies.

They worked exclusively for two groups of “customers,” officials said. The first was Obama and fewer than 14 senior officials in government. The second was a team of operations specialists at the CIA, NSA and FBI who took direction from the task force on where to aim their subsequent efforts to collect more intelligence on Russia.

Much later in the story, WaPo reveals how, in the wake of Obama calling for a report, analysts started looking back at their collected intelligence and learning new details.

Obama’s decision to order a comprehensive report on Moscow’s interference from U.S. spy agencies had prompted analysts to go back through their agencies’ files, scouring for previously overlooked clues.

The effort led to a flurry of new, disturbing reports — many of them presented in the President’s Daily Brief — about Russia’s subversion of the 2016 race. The emerging picture enabled policymakers to begin seeing the Russian campaign in broader terms, as a comprehensive plot sweeping in its scope.

It’s worth asking: did the close hold of the original Task Force, a hold that appears to have been set by Brennan, contribute to the belated discovery of these details revealing a broader campaign?

The surveillance driven sanctions

I’m most interested in the description of how the Obama Admin chose whom to impose sanctions on, though it includes this bizarre claim.

But the package of measures approved by Obama, and the process by which they were selected and implemented, were more complex than initially understood.

The expulsions and compound seizures were originally devised as ways to retaliate against Moscow not for election interference but for an escalating campaign of harassment of American diplomats and intelligence operatives. U.S. officials often endured hostile treatment, but the episodes had become increasingly menacing and violent.

Several of the details WaPo presents as misunderstood (including that the sanctions were retaliation for treatment of diplomats) were either explicit in the sanction package or easily gleaned at the time.

One of those easily gleaned details is that the sanctions on GRU and FSB were mostly symbolic. WaPo uses the symbolic nature of the attack on those who perpetrated the attack as a way to air complaints that these sanctions were not as onerous as those in response to Ukraine.

“I don’t think any of us thought of sanctions as being a primary way of expressing our disapproval” for the election interference, said a senior administration official involved in the decision. “Going after their intelligence services was not about economic impact. It was symbolic.”

More than any other measure, that decision has become a source of regret to senior administration officials directly involved in the Russia debate. The outcome has left the impression that Obama saw Russia’s military meddling in Ukraine as more deserving of severe punishment than its subversion of a U.S. presidential race.

“What is the greater threat to our system of government?” said a former high-ranking administration official, noting that Obama and his advisers knew from projections formulated by the Treasury Department that the impact of the election-related economic sanctions would be “minimal.”

Three things that might play into the mostly symbolic targeting of FSB, especially, are not mentioned. First, WaPo makes no mention of the suspected intelligence sources who’ve been killed since the election, most credibly Oleg Erovinkin, as well as a slew of other suspect and less obviously connected deaths. It doesn’t mention the four men Russia charged with treason in early December. And it doesn’t mention DOJ’s indictment of the Yahoo hackers, including one of the FSB officers, Dmitry Dokuchaev, that Russia charged with treason (not to mention the inclusion within the indictment of intercepts between FSB officers). There’s a lot more spy vs. spy activity going on here that likely relates far more to retaliation or limits on US ability to retaliate, all of which may be more important in the medium term than financial sanctions.

Given the Yahoo and other indictments working through San Francisco (including that of Yevgeniey Nikulin, who claims FBI offered him a plea deal involving admitting he hacked the DNC), I’m particularly interested in the shift in sanctions from NY to San Francisco, where Nikulin and Dokuchaev’s victims are located.

The FBI was also responsible for generating the list of Russian operatives working under diplomatic cover to expel, drawn from a roster the bureau maintains of suspected Russian intelligence agents in the United States.

[snip]

The roster of expelled spies included several operatives who were suspected of playing a role in Russia’s election interference from within the United States, officials said. They declined to elaborate.

More broadly, the list of 35 names focused heavily on Russians known to have technical skills. Their names and bios were laid out on a dossier delivered to senior White House officials and Cabinet secretaries, although the list was modified at the last minute to reduce the number of expulsions from Russia’s U.N. mission in New York and add more names from its facilities in Washington and San Francisco.

And the WaPo’s reports confirm what was also obvious: the two compounds got shut down (and were a priority) because of all the spying they were doing.

The FBI had long lobbied to close two Russian compounds in the United States — one in Maryland and another in New York — on the grounds that both were used for espionage and placed an enormous surveillance burden on the bureau.

[snip]

Rice pointed to the FBI’s McCabe and said: “You guys have been begging to do this for years. Now is your chance.”

The administration gave Russia 24 hours to evacuate the sites, and FBI agents watched as fleets of trucks loaded with cargo passed through the compounds’ gates.

Finally, given Congress’ bipartisan fearmongering about Kaspersky Lab, I’m most interested that at one point Treasury wanted to include them in sanctions.

Treasury Department officials devised plans that would hit entire sectors of Russia’s economy. One preliminary suggestion called for targeting technology companies including Kaspersky Lab, the Moscow-based cybersecurity firm. But skeptics worried that the harm could spill into Europe and pointed out that U.S. companies used Kaspersky systems and software.

In spite of all the fearmongering, no one has presented proof that Kaspersky is working for Russia (there are even things, which I won’t go in to for the moment, that suggest the opposite). But we’re moving close to de facto sanctions against Kaspersky anyway, even in spite of the fact (or perhaps because) they’re providing better intelligence on WannaCry than half the witnesses called as witnesses to Congress. But discrediting Kaspersky undercuts one of the only security firms in the world who, in addition to commenting on Russian hacking, will unpack America’s own hacking. You sanction Kaspersky, and you expand the asymmetry with which security firms selectively scrutinize just Russian hacking, rather than all nation-state hacking.

The looming cyberattack and the silence about Shadow Brokers

Which brings me to the last section of the article, where, over 8000 words in, the WaPo issues a threat against Russia in the form of a looming cyberattack Obama approved before he left.

WaPo’s early description of this suggests the attack was and is still in planning stages and relies on Donald Trump to execute.

Obama also approved a previously undisclosed covert measure that authorized planting cyber weapons in Russia’s infrastructure, the digital equivalent of bombs that could be detonated if the United States found itself in an escalating exchange with Moscow. The project, which Obama approved in a covert-action finding, was still in its planning stages when Obama left office. It would be up to President Trump to decide whether to use the capability.

But if readers make it all the way through the very long article, they’ll learn that’s not the case. The finding has already been signed, the implants are already being placed (implants which would most likely be discovered by Kaspersky), and for Trump to stop it, he would have to countermand Obama’s finding.

The implants were developed by the NSA and designed so that they could be triggered remotely as part of retaliatory cyber-strike in the face of Russian aggression, whether an attack on a power grid or interference in a future presidential race.

Officials familiar with the measures said that there was concern among some in the administration that the damage caused by the implants could be difficult to contain.

As a result, the administration requested a legal review, which concluded that the devices could be controlled well enough that their deployment would be considered “proportional” in varying scenarios of Russian provocation, a requirement under international law.

The operation was described as long-term, taking months to position the implants and requiring maintenance thereafter. Under the rules of covert action, Obama’s signature was all that was necessary to set the operation in motion.

U.S. intelligence agencies do not need further approval from Trump, and officials said that he would have to issue a countermanding order to stop it. The officials said that they have seen no indication that Trump has done so.

Whatever else this article is designed to do, I think, it is designed to be a threat to Putin, from long gone Obama officials.

Given the discussion of a looming cyberattack on Russia, it’s all the more remarkable WaPo breathed not one word about Shadow Brokers, which is most likely to be a drawn out cyberattack by Russian affiliates on NSA. Even ignoring the Shadow Brokers’ derived global ransomware attack in WannaCry, Shadow Brokers has ratcheted up the severity of its releases, including doxing NSA’s spies and hacks of the global finance system, It has very explicitly fostered tensions between the NSA and private sector partners (as well as the reputational costs on those private sector partners). And it has threatened to leak still worse, including NSA exploits against current Microsoft products and details of NSA’s spying on hostile nuclear programs.

The WaPo is talking about a big cyberattack, but an entity that most likely has close ties to Russia has been conducting one, all in plain sight. I suggested back in December that Shadow Brokers was essentially holding NSA hostage in part as a way to constrain US intelligence retaliation against Russia. Given ensuing events, I’m more convinced that is, at least partly, true.

But in this grand narrative of CIA’s early warning and Obama’s inadequate response, details like that remain unsaid.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

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 the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, 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 and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

The Suspected Assasination of Gareth Williams and Shadow Brokers’ Focus on SWIFT

If you haven’t seen it, BuzzFeed has been doing a superb series on the UK deaths that US spooks included in a secret report on suspected Russian assassinations. Yesterday they published the story I knew had to be coming, confirming that GCHQ spy Gareth Williams is among those deaths suspected to be Russian assassinations.

Police declared the death of Gareth Williams “probably an accident” – but British intelligence agencies have been secretly communicating with their American counterparts about suspicions that the spy was executed by Russian assassins, four US intelligence officials told BuzzFeed News.

An ongoing BuzzFeed News investigation has revealed that British and American spy agencies have intelligence connecting a string of suspected assassinations in the UK to Russian state agents or organised criminals – who sometimes cooperate. One high-ranking US intelligence source said: “The Kremlin has aggressively stepped up its efforts to eliminate and silence its enemies abroad over the past couple of years – particularly in Britain.” A second serving official said the circumstances of Williams’ death and 13 others “suggest Russian involvement” and demand “more investigation from the UK”. In all 14 cases, police ruled out foul play while intelligence agencies secretly compiled information connecting the deaths to Russia.

Williams, a 31-year-old codebreaker for Britain’s Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ), had been assigned to MI6, and in the months before his death, sources said, he was working with the US National Security Agency. Two senior British police sources with direct knowledge of the case said some of his work was focused on Russia – and one confirmed reports that he had been helping the NSA trace international money-laundering routes that are used by organised crime groups including Moscow-based mafia cells.

While the report revisits and expands on all the suspicious details of Williams death and the thwarted British investigation into it, that spooks suspected it had ties to Russian mobsters is not new (though that theory does solidly explain why Williams would be among those targeted in this apparent assassination wave). The Daily Mail reported that theory back in 2011.

At the time, I noted that Williams’ impact on the Russian mob was described as a knock-on effect of a generally improved ability to track money laundering, something I tied closely to NSA’s ability to track SWIFT messaging.

[M]oney laundering is money laundering. Terrorists do it. Organized crime does it. Spy services do it. Corporations do it (often legally). And banksters do it, among others.

And there doesn’t appear to be anything about this description to suggest the Russian mafia would be specifically targeted by the technology. Indeed, the description of their exposure as a “knock-on effect” suggests everything would be targeted (which sort of makes sense; you can’t track money laundering unless you track the “legitimate” part of finance that makes it clean).

Which is why I find this latest narrative–with its complete lack of attention on the technology, instead focusing exclusively on the Russian mob–so interesting. Because finding a way to track money laundering, of any sort, would just be a new way to do what US intelligence has already been doing with SWIFT.

The following year, I noted that Gauss, a variant of StuxNet, sounded like the kind of money laundering tracking that might piss off the Russian mob.

That feels so long ago now: before the time we learned, in 2013, that the NSA was double-dipping at SWIFT, accessing SWIFT data directly at targeted customers in addition to its legal access via Europol, and before the time in April when Shadow Brokers not only dumped details of how the NSA hacked SWIFT but also (particularly ominously given the reminder of Williams’ death) doxed the NSA hackers who had carried that out.

Remember: Shadow Brokers has promised more details on “compromised network data from more SWIFT providers and Central banks” as part of its monthly tools of the month club.

There’s a lot that’s going on here. But a big part of it appears to be striking at US asymmetric visibility into the world’s financial system (I don’t say transparency because the US is increasingly the haven of last resort).

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

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 the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, 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 and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

Why Did Tom Bossert Claim WannaCry Was Spread Via Phishing?

Writing this post made me look more closely at what Trump’s Homeland Security Czar Tom Bossert said in a briefing on WannaCry on Monday, May 15.

He claimed, having just gotten off the phone with his British counterpart and in spite of evidence to the contrary, that there had been minimal disruption to care in Britain’s DHS.

The UK National Health Care Service announced 48 of its organizations were affected, and that resulted in inaccessible computers and telephone service, but an extremely minimal effect on disruption to patient care.

[snip]

And from the British perspective, I thought it was important to pass along from them two points — one, that they thought it was an extremely small number of patients that might have been inconvenienced and not necessarily a disruption to their clinical care, as opposed to their administrative processes.  And two, that they felt that some of those reports might have been misstated or overblown given how they had gotten themselves into a position of patching.

 

Of course, this may be an issue in the upcoming election, so I can see why Theresa May’s government might want to downplay any impact on patient care, especially since the Tories have long been ignoring IT problems at DHS.

He dodged a follow-up question about whether there might be more tools in the Shadow Brokers haul that would lead to similar attacks in the future, by pointing to our Vulnerabilities Equities Process.

Q    I guess a shorter way to put it would be is there more out there that you’re worried about that would lead to more attacks in the future?

MR. BOSSERT:  I actually think that the United States, more than probably any other country, is extremely careful with their processes about how they handle any vulnerabilities that they’re aware of.  That’s something that we do when we know of the vulnerability, not when we know we lost a vulnerability.  I think that’s a key distinction between us and other countries — and other adversaries that don’t provide any such consideration to their people, customers, or industry.

Obviously, the VEP did not prevent this attack. More importantly, someone in government really needs to start answering what the NSA and CIA (and FBI, if it ever happens) do when their hacking tools get stolen, an issue which Bossert totally ignored.

But I’m most interested in something Bossert said during the original exchange on NSA’s role in all this.

Q    So this is one episode of malware or ransomware.  Do you know from the documents and the cyber hacking tools that were stolen from NSA if there are potentially more out there?

MR. BOSSERT:  So there’s a little bit of a double question there.  Part of that has to do with the underlying vulnerability exploit here used.  I think if I could, I’d rather, instead of directly answering that, and can’t speak to how we do or don’t do our business as a government in that regard, I’d like to instead point out that this was a vulnerability exploit as one part of a much larger tool that was put together by the culpable parties and not by the U.S. government.

So this was not a tool developed by the NSA to hold ransom data.  This was a tool developed by culpable parties, potentially criminals of foreign nation states, that was put together in such a way so to deliver it with phishing emails, put it into embedded documents, and cause an infection in encryption and locking. [my emphasis]

Three days into the WannaCry attack, having spent the weekend consulting with DHS and NSA, Bossert asserted that WannaCry was spread via phishing.

That is a claim that was reported in the press. But even by Monday, I was seeing security researchers persistently question the claim. Over and over they kept looking and failing to find any infections via phishing. And I had already seen several demonstrations showing it didn’t spread via phishing.

Now, Bossert is one of the grown-ups in the Trump Administration. His appointment — and the cybersecurity policy continuity with Obama’s policy — was regarded with relief when it was made, as laid out in this Wired profile.

“People that follow cybersecurity issues will be happy that Tom is involved in those discussions as one of the reasoned voices,” Healey says.

“Frankly, he’s an unusual figure in this White House. He’s not a Bannon. He’s not even a Priebus,” says one former senior Obama administration official who asked to remain unnamed, contrasting Bossert with Trump’s top advisers Stephen Bannon and Reince Priebus. “He has a lot of credibility. He’s very straightforward and level-headed.”

And (as the rest of the profile makes clear) he does know cybersecurity.

So I’m wondering why Bossert was stating that this attack spread by phishing at a time when open source investigation had already largely undermined that hasty claim.

There are at least three possibilities. Perhaps Bossert simply mistated here, accidentally blaming the vector we’ve grown used to blaming. Possibly (though this would be shocking) the best SIGINT agency in the world still hadn’t figured out what a bunch of people on Twitter already had.

Or, perhaps there were some phished infections, which quickly got flooded as the infection spread via SMB. Though that’s unlikely, because the certainty that it didn’t spread via email has only grown since Monday.

So assuming Bossert was, in fact, incorrect when he made this claim, why did have this faulty information?

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

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 the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, 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 and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

Shadow Brokers: “All your bases are belong to us”

Back when Shadow Brokers doxxed some NSA hackers, I argued some allusions Shadow Brokers made served as a kind of warning, in that case directed at people who hack for NSA. As I understand it, Shadow Brokers’ threats reflected access to specific and accurate information.

Though I haven’t confirmed any of these details, yesterday’s Shadow Brokers post seems to do more of the same, although this time directed at NSA itself.

Consider this passage:

In April, 90 days from theequationgroup show and tell, 30 days from Microsoft patch, theshadowbrokers dumps old Linux (auction file) and windows ops disks. Because why not? TheShadowBrokers is having many more where coming from? “75% of U.S. cyber arsenal” TheShadowBrokers dumped 2013 OddJob from ROCTOOLS and 2013 JEEPFLEAMARKET from /TARGETS. This is theshadowbrokers way of telling theequationgroup “all your bases are belong to us”. TheShadowBrokers is not being interested in stealing grandmothers’ retirement money. This is always being about theshadowbrokers vs theequationgroup.

Shadow Brokers starts by saying it just dropped the EternalBlue dump, along with some other files, because “The ShadowBrokers is having many more where [those were] coming from.” Shadow Brokers then cites from a detail first reported in a WaPo report (though presents the factoid as a direct quote when it is not): that Hal Martin stole 75% of the US cyberarsenal. The WaPo report actually stated that Martin had stolen “75 percent of TAO’s library of hacking tools.”

Shadow Brokers then made some assertions that may disprove a claim WaPo made yesterday: “It is not clear how the Shadow Brokers obtained the hacking tools, which are identical to those breached by former NSA contractor Harold T. Martin III, according to former officials.” It described exactly where, on the NSA servers, the files came from. “TheShadowBrokers dumped 2013 OddJob from ROCTOOLS and 2013 JEEPFLEAMARKET from /TARGETS.” Having suggested it had at least seen file paths or screen caps of the NSA’s file system, Shadow Brokers then made its point even more clear: “This is theshadowbrokers way of telling theequationgroup ‘all your bases are belong to us‘,” both making fun of the claims about its broken language but also suggesting takeover (though I’m curious if mis-citation using a plural here is intentional — perhaps these file systems are in different places? — or just one of a some egregious typos in this post).

Again, I haven’t confirmed whether those details are accurate. Surely the NSA has doublechecked. If they are accurate, then the other claims made in the post — specifically about the other things it has to dump — will especially merit attention.

TheShadowBrokers Monthly Data Dump could be being:

  • web browser, router, handset exploits and tools
  • select items from newer Ops Disks, including newer exploits for Windows 10
  • compromised network data from more SWIFT providers and Central banks
  • compromised network data from Russian, Chinese, Iranian, or North Korean nukes and missile programs

One more point. Shadow Brokers seems to suggest Oracle and another Microsoft patch were due to notice from former NSA hackers, as if all the former NSA employees are helping their employers clean up holes they’ve long known about.

Oracle is patching huge numbers of vulnerabilities but TheShadowBrokers is not caring enough to be look up exact dates.

[snip]

TheShadowBrokers is thinking Google Project Zero is having some former TheEquationGroup member. Project Zero recently releasing “Wormable Zero-Day” Microsoft patching in record time, knowing it was coming? coincidence?

It’s not clear whether they’d be doing this because they knew of holes NSA had been using or not.

But it’s worth observing that Shadow Brokers is not making vague threats here.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

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 the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, 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 and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

The EternalBlue Source Might Have Been Able to “Fish DOD with Dynamite;” Why Didn’t It?

Let’s look at some dates the WaPo’s sources and Shadow Brokers are giving for the EternalBlue exploit that caused havoc around the world starting on Friday.

Yesterday, WaPo had a story on how concerned people within NSA were about the EternalBlue Windows exploit used in the WannaCry ransomware. It was so powerful, one source described, it was like “fishing with dynamite.”

In the case of EternalBlue, the intelligence haul was “unreal,” said one former employee.

“It was like fishing with dynamite,” said a second.

But that power came with risks. Among others, when the NSA started using the powerful tool more than five years, the military would have been exposed to its use.

Since the NSA began using EternalBlue, which targets some versions of Microsoft Windows, the U.S. military and many other institutions have updated software that was especially vulnerable.

Though Cyberscoop notes the US military hasn’t been entirely protected from WannaCry. An IP address associated with the Army Research Lab in Fort Huachuca was infected (though that could have been a deliberate attempt to respond to the ransomware).

WannaCry ransomware infected a machine tied to an IP address associated with the Army Research Laboratory, CyberScoop has learned. The information, found on a list of affected IP addresses provided by a security vendor, would mark the first time the ransomware was found on a federal government computer.

The security vendor, who provided the data on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive material, observed communications from the victim IP address to the attackers’ known command and control server on May 12; confirming that the ransomware infection involving the ARL was in fact successful.

The IP address is tied to a server block parked at a host located at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. The type of machine the IP address is attached to is unknown.

In the early days of EternalBlue, the WaPo explains, it would often crash the infected computer, resulting in a bluescreen that might alert victims to its presence. That opened the possibility that the victim might discover the exploit and then turn it back on the US.

“If one of our targets discovered we were using this particular exploit and turned it against the United States, the entire Department of Defense would be vulnerable,” the second employee said. “You just have to have a foothold inside the network and you can compromise everything.”

The WaPo puts the date before which DOD was vulnerable to its own weapon at 2014.

What if the Shadow Brokers had dumped the exploits in 2014, before the government had begun to upgrade software on its computers? What if they had released them and Microsoft had no ready patch?

In yesterday’s post, Shadow Brokers claimed the Windows exploits released last month — which it had first named in January — came from a 2013 OpsDisk.

In January theshadowbrokers is deciding to show screenshots of lost theequationgroup 2013 Windows Ops Disk.

I’ll have a bit more to say about Shadow Brokers’ claims yesterday. But if this description of the source of the exploit is correct — an ops disk dating to 2013 — it opens up the possibility it was discovered around the same time (perhaps in response to the bluescreen effect). If it did, then it would have been able to attack DOD with it.

I keep asking people what the source for Shadow Brokers’ files might have been able — might still be able — to steal from the US using the tools in question. This timeline seems to suggest the Ops Disk would have been deployed before DOD was prepared to withstand its own weapons.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

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 the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, 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 and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

Shadow Brokers Further Incites War between “scumbag Microsoft Lawyer” and NSA

The other day, Microsoft President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith wrote a blog post about the WannaCrypt ransomware exploiting his company’s products to disrupt the world. At one level it was one of the first entries in what will surely be an interesting policy discussion once there’s an aftermath to the crisis, calling for collective action and a Digital Geneva Convention.

But at another level, Smith’s post provided an opportunity to bitch out the CIA and NSA, the leaked and stolen exploits of which have really fucked with Microsoft in the last few months.

Finally, this attack provides yet another example of why the stockpiling of vulnerabilities by governments is such a problem. This is an emerging pattern in 2017. We have seen vulnerabilities stored by the CIA show up on WikiLeaks, and now this vulnerability stolen from the NSA has affected customers around the world. Repeatedly, exploits in the hands of governments have leaked into the public domain and caused widespread damage. An equivalent scenario with conventional weapons would be the U.S. military having some of its Tomahawk missiles stolen. And this most recent attack represents a completely unintended but disconcerting link between the two most serious forms of cybersecurity threats in the world today – nation-state action and organized criminal action.

The governments of the world should treat this attack as a wake-up call. They need to take a different approach and adhere in cyberspace to the same rules applied to weapons in the physical world. We need governments to consider the damage to civilians that comes from hoarding these vulnerabilities and the use of these exploits.

Joining the many people who object to the analogy between Tomahawks and hacking exploits, the entity that caused this crisis, Shadow Brokers, is none too impressed with Smith’s response, either. Along with suggesting NSA was paying Microsoft to sit on vulnerabilities and unleashing a load of expletives (you can click through for both of those), Shadow Brokers lays out the tensions between Microsoft, its enterprise contracts with the government, and the NSA’s reticence about the vulnerabilities in Microsoft products it is exploiting.

Despite what scumbag Microsoft Lawyer is wanting the peoples to be believing Microsoft is being BFF with theequationgroup. Microsoft and theequationgroup is having very very large enterprise contracts millions or billions of USD each year. TheEquationGroup is having spies inside Microsoft and other U.S. technology companies. Unwitting HUMINT.

[snip]

Microsoft is being embarrassed because theequationgroup is lying to Microsoft. TheEquationGroup is not telling Microsoft about SMB vulnerabilities, so Microsoft not preparing with quick fix patch. More important theequationgroup not paying Microsoft for holding vulnerability. Microsoft is thinking it knowing all the vulnerabilities TtheEquationGroup is using and paying for holding patch.

Then Shadow Brokers brings the hammer: threatens to dump (among other offerings in an “exploit of the month club”) a Windows 10 vulnerability.

TheShadowBrokers Monthly Data Dump could be being:

  • web browser, router, handset exploits and tools
  • select items from newer Ops Disks, including newer exploits for Windows 10
  • compromised network data from more SWIFT providers and Central banks
  • compromised network data from Russian, Chinese, Iranian, or North Korean nukes and missile programs

Heck, at this point, Shadow Brokers doesn’t even need to have this exploit (though I’m guessing the NSA and Microsoft both may be erring on the side of caution at this point). Because simply by threatening another leak after leaking two sets of Microsoft exploits, Shadow Brokers will ratchet up the hostility between Microsoft and the government.

It might even force some disclosure about exploits more critical to NSA’s current toolkit than the very powerful tools Shadow Brokers already used to create a global ransomware worm.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

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 the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, 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 and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

Three Things: Oracle’s 299, Flashback, Longreads and 4/20

Day Zero — the day after federal income tax filings were due — came and went, with zero Trump tax returns disclosed to the public. While Trump’s positions on many issues flip-flop and confuse the world, on transparency, ethics, and his tax returns he has been utterly consistent: opaque and unethical.

Fortunately today is 4/20. Do with that what you will. Do you smell brownies?

Speaking of 4/20, did you know that states where marijuana legalization appeared on the 2016 ballot, those initiatives outperformed one or more of the two main presidential candidates? What a candidate or political party might do with that knowledge…anyhow, on with three things.

Unprophetic Oracle
There’s still some fallout after The Shadow Brokers (TSB) release last week of NSA Tailored Access Operations’ (TAO) toolkit. Software vendor Oracle announced a patch for 299 vulnerabilities revealed by the TSB.

Wrap your head around that: 299 fixes.

Bigger than the whopping 276 fixes Oracle issued last summer in one fell swoop.

Now wrap your head around the fact this mega-patch covers a range of corporate enterprise software used for nearly every aspect of business operations, from human resource management to service or manufacturing resource planning.

If the NSA isn’t conducting economic espionage Oracle seems like an odd target to saturate so wide and deeply.

Still haven’t decided what to think of Oracle’s ability to push out this many patches inside a week. Were they tipped off, or were these vulnerabilities so obvious they should have been fixed ages ago? Or maybe this is what happens when a business like Oracle takes its eyes off the ball and focuses on the wrong things like a protracted lawsuit against Google?

Memories, jogged
When I saw this table fragment on Twitter, listing a few exploits revealed by TSB, I had a flashback to the Bush administration.

Gee, I wonder how much of the NSA TAO-Equation Group toolkit could explain the White House’s missing emails post-Plame outing?

Longreads: Economics, Liberalism, Google’s first moonshot
These are worth your time yet this week or weekend.

The Liberal Order Is Rigged by Jeff D. Colgan and Robert O. Keohane in Foreign Affairs (registration required) — An examination of liberalism’s failure and how the failure led to anti-democratic populism. In my opinion, this assessment is good but simplistic; the knee-jerk reaction many will have to the word ‘liberalism’ alone indicates there is far more at work than liberalism failing to deliver on its merits. It’s still worth a read; we must begin to pick out and save the liberal from neoliberal if we are to save democracy. Must say I’m surprised at Foreign Affairs’ steady shift away from rigid conservatism as well as neoliberalism.

The moral burden on economists — Darryl Hamilton’s 2017 presidential address to the National Economic Association warns against treating economics as a morally neutral ‘science’. How much of the failure of liberalism is really due to immoral/non-neutral application of economics?

Torching the Modern-Day Library of Alexandria by James Somers for The Atlantic — This tagline is quite the hook: “Somewhere at Google there is a database containing 25 million books and nobody is allowed to read them.” Heartbreaking to think there hasn’t been a middle ground to free these books to the public. In my opinion, Google is out the money on the scanning process. What would happen if they spun off this effort as a nonprofit digital Library of Alexandria? Could the funds from books approaching out-of-copyright date pay for the upkeep and digitization of new works?

Chaffetz out?
I don’t even know what to think of the rumors that Rep. Jason Chaffetz may leave Congress before his term ends December 2017. Some speculate his role in cutting funding directly related to security for diplomats plays a role; others speculate the decision is based on a more personal driver. I hope he can live with what he’s done and what he may yet choose to do. I’d hate to have to explain myself to my kids if I’d made some of his decisions to date.

There’s your three things and a lagniappe. À bientôt!

Blogger since 2002, political activist since 2003, geek since birth. Opinions informed by mixed-race, multi-ethnic, cis-female condition, further shaped by kind friends of all persuasions. Sci-tech frenemy, wannabe artist, decent cook, determined author, successful troublemaker. Mother of invention and two excessively smart-assed young adult kids. Attended School of Hard Knocks; Rather Unfortunate Smallish Private Business School in Midwest; Affordable Mid-State Community College w/evening classes. Self-employed at Tiny Consulting Business; previously at Large-ish Chemical Company with HQ in Midwest in multiple marginalizing corporate drone roles, and at Rather Big IT Service Provider as a project manager, preceded by a motley assortment of gigs before the gig economy was a thing. Blogging experience includes a personal blog at the original blogs.salon.com, managing editor for a state-based news site, and a stint at Firedoglake before landing here at emptywheel as technology’s less-virginal-but-still-accursed Cassandra.

The Doxing of Equation Group Hackers Raises Questions about the Legal Role of Nation-State Hackers

Update: I should have caveated this post much more strongly. I did not confirm the names and IDs released in the dump are NSA’s hackers. It could be Shadow Brokers added names to cast blame on someone else. So throughout, take this as suspected doxing, with the possibility that it is, instead, disinformation. 

In 2014, DOJ indicted five members of China’s People Liberation Army, largely for things America’s own hackers do themselves. Contrary to what you’ve read in other reporting, the overwhelming majority of what those hackers got indicted for was the theft of information on international negotiations, something the US asks its NSA (and military industrial contractor) hackers to do all the time. The one exception to that — the theft of information on nuclear reactors from Westinghouse within the context of a technology transfer agreement — was at least a borderline case of a government stealing private information for the benefit of its private companies, but even there, DOJ did not lay out which private Chinese company received the benefit.

A month ago, DOJ indicted two Russian FSB officers and two criminal hackers (one, Alexey Belan, who was already on FBI’s most wanted list) that also worked for the Russian government. Rather bizarrely, DOJ deemed the theft of Yahoo tools that could be used to collect on Yahoo customers “economic espionage,” even though it’s the kind of thing NSA’s hackers do all the time (and notably did do against Chinese telecom Huawei). The move threatens to undermine the rationalization the US always uses to distinguish its global dragnet from the oppressive spying of others: we don’t engage in economic espionage, US officials always like to claim. Only, according to DOJ’s current definition, we do.

On Friday, along with details about previously unknown, very powerful Microsoft vulnerabilities and details on the 2013 hacking of the SWIFT financial transfer messaging system, ShadowBrokers doxed a number of NSA hackers (I won’t describe how or who it did so — that’s easy enough to find yourself). Significantly, it exposed the name of several of the guys who personally hacked EastNets SWIFT service bureau, targeting (among other things) Kuwait’s Fund for Arab Economic Development and the Palestinian al Quds bank. They also conducted reconnaissance on at least one Belgian-based EastNets employee. These are guys who — assuming they moved on from NSA into the private sector — would travel internationally as part of their job, even aside from any vacations they take overseas.

In other words, ShadowBrokers did something the Snowden releases and even WikiLeaks’ Vault 7 releases have avoided: revealing the people behind America’s state-sponsored hacking.

Significantly, in the context of the SWIFT hack, it did so in an attack where the victims (particularly our ally Kuwait and an apparent European) might have the means and the motive to demand justice. It did so for targets that the US has other, legal access to, via the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program negotiated with the EU and administered by Europol. And it did so for a target that has subsequently been hacked by people who might be ordinary criminals or might be North Korea, using access points (though not the sophisticated techniques) that NSA demonstrated the efficacy of targeting years earlier and which had already been exposed in 2013. Much of the reporting on the SWIFT hack has claimed — based on no apparent evidence and without mentioning the existing, legal TFTP framework — that these hacks were about tracking terrorism finance. But thus far, there’s no reason to believe that’s all that the NSA was doing, particularly with targets like the Kuwait development fund.

Remember, too, that in 2013, just two months after NSA continued to own the infrastructure for a major SWIFT service bureau, the President’s Review Group advised that governments should not use their offensive cyber capabilities to manipulate financial systems.

Governments should not use their offensive cyber capabilities to change the amounts held in financial accounts or otherwise manipulate the financial systems;

[snip]

[G]overnments should abstain from penetrating the systems of financial institutions and changing the amounts held in accounts there. The policy of avoiding tampering with account balances in financial institutions is part of a broader US policy of abstaining from manipulation of the financial system. These policies support economic growth by allowing all actors to rely on the accuracy of financial statements without the need for costly re-verification of account balances. This sort of attack could cause damaging uncertainty in financial markets, as well as create a risk of escalating counter-attacks against a nation that began such an effort. The US Government should affirm this policy as an international norm, and incorporate the policy into free trade or other international agreements.

No one has ever explained where the PRG came up with the crazy notion that governments might tamper with the world’s financial system. But since that time, our own spooks continue to raise concerns that it might happen to us, Keith Alexander — the head of NSA for the entire 5-year period we know it to have been pawning SWIFT — is making a killing off of such fears, and the G-20 recently called for establishing norms to prevent it.

A number of the few people who’ve noted this doxing publicly have suggested that it clearly supports the notion that a nation-state — most likely Russia — is behind the Shadow Brokers leak. As such, the release of previously unannounced documents to carry out this doxing would be seen as retaliation for the US’ naming of Russia’s hackers, both in December’s election hacking related sanctions and more recently in the Yahoo indictment, to say nothing of America’s renewed effort to arrest Russian hackers worldwide while they vacation outside of Russia.

While that’s certainly a compelling argument, there may be another motive that could explain it.

In a little noticed statement released between its last two file dumps, Shadow Brokers did a post explaining (and not for the first time) that what gets called its “broken” English is instead operational security (along with more claims about what it’s trying to do). As part of that statement, Shadow Brokers claims it writes (though the tense here may be suspect) documents for the federal government and remains in this country.

The ShadowBrokers is writing TRADOC, Position Pieces, White Papers, Wiki pages, etc for USG. If theshadowbrokers be using own voices, theshadowbrokers be writing peoples from prison or dead. TheShadowBrokers is practicing obfuscation as part of operational security (OPSEC). Is being a spy thing. Is being the difference between a contractor tech support guy posing as a infosec expert but living in exile in Russia (yes @snowden) and subject matter experts in Cyber Intelligence like theshadowbrokers. TheShadowBrokers has being operating in country for many months now and USG is still not having fucking clue.

On the same day and, I believe though am still trying to confirm the timing, before that post, Shadow Brokers had reacted to a Forbes piece asking whether it was about to be unmasked (quoting Snowden), bragging that “9 months still living in homeland USA USA USA our country theshadowbrokers not run, theshadowbrokers stay and fight.” Shadow Brokers then started attacking Jake Williams for having a big mouth for writing this post, claiming to expose him as a former Equation Group member, specifically invoking OddJob (the other file released on Friday that doxed NSA hackers, though not Williams), and raising the “gravity” of talking to Q Group, NSA’s counterintelligence group.

trying so hard so helping out…you having big mouth for former member what was name of.

leak OddJob? Windows BITS persistence? CCI? Maybe not understand gravity of situation USG investigating members talked to Q group yet

theshadowbrokers ISNOT in habit of outing members but had make exception for big mouth, keep talking shit your next

Which is to say that, four days before Shadow Brokers started doxing NSA hackers, Shadow Brokers made threats against those who’ve commented on the released Shadow Brokers files specifically within the context of counterintelligence investigations, even while bragging about having gone unexposed thus far even while remaining in the United States.

Whatever else this doxing may do, it will also make the investigation into how internal NSA files have come to be plastered all over the Internet more difficult, because Shadow Brokers is now threatening to expose members of TAO.

Which is not to say such a motivation, if true, is mutually exclusive of Russia retaliating for having its own hackers exposed.

All of which brings me back to the question of norms. Even as the US has been discussing other norms about hacking in recent years, I’ve seen next to no discussion about how state hackers — and remember, this post discusses NSA hackers, including uniformed members of the Armed Services, government contractors, spies, and criminal hackers working for a state (a practice we do too, though in a different form than what Russia does) — fit into international law and norms about immunities granted to individuals acting on behalf of the state. The US seems to have been proceeding half-blindly, giving belated consideration to how the precedents it sets with its offensive hacking might affect the state, without considering how it is exposing the individuals it relies on to conduct that hacking.

If nothing else, Shadow Brokers’ doxing of NSA’s own hackers needs to change that. Because these folks have just been directly exposed to the kind of international pursuit that the US aggressively conducts against Russians and others.

Because of international legal protections, our uniformed service members can kill for the US without it exposing them to legal ramifications for the rest of their lives. The folks running our spying and justice operations, however, apparently haven’t thought about what it means that they’re setting norms that deprive our state-sponsored hackers of the same protection.

Update: I forgot to mention the most absurd example of us indicting foreign hackers: when, last year, DOJ indicted 7 Iranians for DDOS attacks. In addition to the Jack Goldsmith post linked in that post, which talks about the absurdity of it,  Dave Aitel and Jake Williams talked about how it might expose people like them to international retaliation.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

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 the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, 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 and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

Three Things: Day 1 – Tax Day, Ballmer’s Gift, Microsoft

Day 1: Tax Day
You have today until midnight local time today to file your federal income taxes or file for an extension. As of midnight, Trump owes us yet another federal tax return.

And no, Trump’s federal income tax return for 2016 is NOT under audit as the deadline hasn’t even passed. Even if an audit of Trump’s 2016 filing began tomorrow there’s no excuse for not disclosing what has been filed with the IRS regardless of audit status.

What made America great has been its lower rate of corruption and clear expectations of oversight and governance. What makes America less than great is a failure of governance, lack of transparency, and increasing corruption. Why would any foreign individual, or company, or country invest in the U.S. when they can no longer reasonably expect fairness and security from our government? Trump’s behavior (and that of his family and his corporate holding structure) placing himself beyond the law undermines our strength. This cannot continue.

Steve Ballmer’s gift: USAFacts
Admittedly, I was never very crazy about Ballmer as CEO of Microsoft. He continued Bill Gates’ flawed ideology after Windows reached near-ubiquity, suppressing Microsoft’s value and negatively influencing the tech industry for too long. What a pleasant surprise, though, to learn about his retirement hobby: USAFacts, a Big Data initiative tracing the flow of tax dollars using government data.

The project began after Ballmer’s spouse prodded him to do more philanthropically. He resisted because he paid a lot of taxes; weren’t his tax dollars enough? Mm-hmm.

He learned a lot, and I expect we will be, too, as USAFacts matures. Some ugly truths have already been exposed to people like Ballmer who might not otherwise have looked — like the power of the gun lobby to suppress government reporting, or the inability of children to rise from poverty.

Ballmer’s redeeming himself. I only hope his project can get out in front of the Trump administration’s rapid decimation of government reporting.

Microsoft: a very different gift
Systems administrators who manage Windows-based enterprises aren’t very happy with a change Microsoft made to its security bulletins — they’re gone, replaced by a searchable database.

Which sounds all fine and dandy in theory until reality meets the road. Just read users’ feedback and you’ll quickly grasp additional workload has been pushed off onto administrators who already have quite enough to do. SANS Internet Storm Center looked swamped by the change.

Elimination of the security bulletin format had been expected since last November and anticipated for February. It’s not clear if there is a relationship between the unusual patch pushes February and March and this new security updates database.

One meager upside: malicious hackers will have just as much difficulty (or more) determining what was patched as will Windows administrators.

Speaking of hackers, I should note here I may be a minority report on The Shadow Brokers (TSB). The manner in which the last three months of Windows’ security fixes have been handled — which included many key vulnerabilities in advance of TSB’s latest NSA toolkit dump — suggests somebody inside Microsoft already knew what to patch months ago. Perhaps even last year when the change to security bulletins was announced given the amount of lead time needed to fix complex vulnerabilities.

Further, Microsoft had been compromised once some years ago that we know of by a Russian spy. Recall the roundup of the Illegals Program by FBI in late June 2010 when ten Russian sleeper agents including Anna Chapman were taken into custody and deported less than two weeks later in a spy swap. An eleventh agent had been picked up in Seattle where he worked for Microsoft. Reports said he was a only entry-level software tester who had established employment under his real name, Alexey Karetnikov. He first worked as an intern for Microsoft in the summer of 2008, then hired on full time in October 2009 after a gap year in Russia. (Karetnikov wasn’t the only Illegal Program spy in the Seattle area; a spy using the name ‘Tracey Foley‘ had been hired to work for a real estate company’s Seattle branch but had not fully established a presence in the northwest by the time she was arrested. There didn’t appear to be an immediate link between Foley and Microsoft or any Seattle-area technology company.)

What did Microsoft do after they learned about Karetnikov’s presence? When did they learn about him — before his arrest, or only when the arrest took place? How did MSFT mitigate risks, including the possibility there were other undisclosed spies in their ranks? Is TSB really a means by which now-useless or exposed tools are rolled up while being used as a honeypot? Could explain why linguists say TSB is likely English-speaking masquerading as non-English speaker.

We’ll probably never know for sure.

A little less than seven hours until tax filing deadline here in Eastern Daylight timezone. Tick-tock.

Blogger since 2002, political activist since 2003, geek since birth. Opinions informed by mixed-race, multi-ethnic, cis-female condition, further shaped by kind friends of all persuasions. Sci-tech frenemy, wannabe artist, decent cook, determined author, successful troublemaker. Mother of invention and two excessively smart-assed young adult kids. Attended School of Hard Knocks; Rather Unfortunate Smallish Private Business School in Midwest; Affordable Mid-State Community College w/evening classes. Self-employed at Tiny Consulting Business; previously at Large-ish Chemical Company with HQ in Midwest in multiple marginalizing corporate drone roles, and at Rather Big IT Service Provider as a project manager, preceded by a motley assortment of gigs before the gig economy was a thing. Blogging experience includes a personal blog at the original blogs.salon.com, managing editor for a state-based news site, and a stint at Firedoglake before landing here at emptywheel as technology’s less-virginal-but-still-accursed Cassandra.

The Shadow Brokers Vulnerability Equities Process: NSA Has Had at Least 96 Days to Warn Microsoft about These Files

On January 8, Shadow Brokers announced an auction of Windows Warez, with lists of the exploits he/they had for sale (these two posts from Malware Jake provide analysis of them). Four days later, SB released a different set of Windows exploits, a more dated set that (SB claimed) Kaspersky Labs had had some visibility onto.  The Windows files released today include the ones offered for sale back in January, down to the version numbers. Compare, in particular, the touch, exploit, and payloads with this screencap. SB announced Fuzzbunch and DanderSpritz in January, too.

That’s a critical detail for the debate going on on Twitter and in chats about how shitty it was for SB to release these files on Good Friday, just before (or for those with generous vacation schedules, at the beginning of) a holiday weekend. While those trying to defend against the files and those trying to exploit them are racing against the clock and each other, it is not the case that the folks at NSA got no warning. NSA has had, at a minimum, 96 days of warning, knowing that SB could drop the files at any time.

The big question, of course, is whether NSA told Microsoft what the files targeted. Certainly, Microsoft had not fully responded to that warning, as hackers have already gotten a number of these files to work.

With WikiLeaks’s Vault 7 files, it’s at least possible the CIA doesn’t know precisely what got leaked to WikiLeaks, even though the government immediately identified when and how the files were breached. The NSA cannot make that claim here, at least not with the Windows files. SB was kind enough to provide warning. The question is, what did NSA do with that warning.

The fact that SB provided that warning, though, should have very serious ramifications for the Vulnerabilities Equities Process, under which the NSA is supposed to consider whether it is better to alert companies to exploits or to sit on them and use them. It’s one thing to decide NSA’s spying takes precedence over the security of the customers of big American companies. It’s another thing to keep those exploits in a way that makes them vulnerable to theft, as both CIA and NSA have done.

But it should be beyond question that when an intelligence agency gets a very detailed list of a group of exploits a malicious entity plans to release, the agency should warn the American companies affected.

Update: Microsoft told Sam Biddle they haven’t heard from any “individual or organization.”

A Microsoft spokesperson told The Intercept “We are reviewing the report and will take the necessary actions to protect our customers.” We asked Microsoft if the NSA at any point offered to provide information that would help protect Windows users from these attacks, given that the leak has been threatened since August 2016, to which they replied “our focus at this time is reviewing the current report.” The company later clarified that “At this time, other than reporters, no individual or organization has contacted us in relation to the materials released by Shadow Brokers.”

I think there’s actually some wiggle room in there. We shall see how long it takes MSFT to patch this stuff.

Update: MSFT released a statement that said all but three of these had been addressed. Three of them were addressed in their March update, and another this year. Which would suggest NSA did warn them.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

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 the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, 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 and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.