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10 Years of emptywheel: Many Happy Rabbit Holes

Wow, it’s been ten years! Time sure flies when you’re having fun — and yes, some of us have a rather perverse sense of amusement, editors, contributors, and readers alike.

I’ve always enjoyed falling into yawning ‘rabbit holes’ begging for investigation. It’s often as frustrating as chasing an actual zippy white rabbit, the target evading capture. But following the trail, finding new leads, seeing the prey so far and so near — it can be exhilarating. Or it can be incredibly exasperating. No two investigative searches are ever the same, and emptywheel has offered some intense and heady chases over its ten years here.

Unlike the rest of my fellows here at emptywheel, I don’t have a Top 10 favorite posts. I do have three things which I am happy I had a chance to post here — my four-part series for The Angry Left, the timeline on Flint’s Water Crisis, and the post I wrote this past spring on WannaCry.

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The Angry Left series was originally posted at Firedoglake but it needed to be revisited; it needs revisiting again even now as we work toward a revitalization of civics during resistance. Many new political groups have emerged, operating in parallel with the existing political parties. Their members need institutional knowledge from past organizing efforts to avoid making the mistakes of the past to become a more effective political force.

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Flint’s Water Crisis timeline isn’t complete and remains a work in progress; there are a number of pieces still needed, and much of them come from this site’s community members who offered them in comments (I’m looking at you, harpie, especially — thank you). But even in its current condition, the timeline demands answers: what city and state officials were involved in the key decision on the night before the cutover, when Detroit’s water system made a last-ditch offer by email with a rate cheaper than the new Karegnondi pipeline’s water? Why was a pipeline to Saginaw, ~30 miles north, never suggested or evaluated, instead of the ~60-mile-long Karegnondi? How many Flint-originated cases of Legionnaires’ disease actually affected the state of Michigan besides the 12 known deaths in 2014-2015?

A new question emerged recently: why does Michigan’s attorney general Bill Schuette think he stands a chance as a gubernatorial candidate after failing to hold Governor Rick Snyder and his office accountable for the poisoning of an entire city, let alone failing to protect their interests before the poisoning began? Why has the state failed residential property owners in Flint after their property values crashed thanks to Snyder’s crappy governance?

The timeline was personal, too; my oldest adult child lived in Flint during the first two years of the water crisis, suffering a number of unusual health problems after the city’s water supply was cut over to the Flint River. We don’t know if or when health risks from exposure will end, for my eldest or the hundreds of children and their families who lived and continue to live in Flint.

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This WannaCry post still haunts me; there are open questions which beg for answers, threats still hanging over head — this is one of the rabbits which has slipped away yet teases me to this day.

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What do you think was the best of this ten years of emptywheel? Share your favorites in comments; we’d love to hear what you’ve found most interesting, educational, worthwhile.

And if you can afford it, please chip in to help keep the work you enjoy at emptywheel as independent as it has been this last ten years. We don’t take advertising dollars; this is a labor of love for our team of contributors. But bandwidth, server space, software maintenance and development cost money, and the more important our work is, the more likely it is to need more bandwidth and additional security to keep our work online, uninterrupted.

Thank you for making this ten years so worthwhile. We hope we’ll continue to see you in comments into the future at emptywheel.

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.

[Photo: National Security Agency, Ft. Meade, MD via Wikimedia]

Companies Victimized by Repurposed NSA Tools Don’t Share Those Details with Government

Reporting on an appearance by acting DHS undersecretary for the National Protection and Programs Directorate Christopher Krebs, CyberScoop explains that the government only heard from six victims of the WannaCry and NotPetya ransomware outbreaks (two known major victims are Maersk shipping, which had to shut down multiple terminals in the US, and the US law firm DLA Piper).

Christopher Krebs, acting undersecretary for the National Protection and Programs Directorate, told an audience of cybersecurity professionals Wednesday that the biggest issue with both incidents came from an absence of reports from businesses who were affected. While experts say that WannaCry and NotPetya disrupted business operations at American companies, it’s not clear how many enterprises were damaged or to what degree.

The government wanted to collect more information from affected companies in order to better assess the initial infection vector, track the spread of the virus and develop ways to deter similar future attacks.

Collecting data from victim organizations was important, a senior U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity told CyberScoop, because the information could have been used to inform policymakers about the perpetrator of the attack and potential responses

The rest of the story explains that private companies are generally reluctant to share details of being a ransomware victim (particularly if a company pays the ransom, there are even legal reasons for that).

But it doesn’t consider another factor. If a cop left his gun lying around and some nutjob stole the gun and killed a kid with it, how likely is that family going to trust the cop in question, who indirectly enabled the murder?

The same problem exists here. Having proven unable to protect its own powerful tools (this is more a factor in WannaCry than NotPetya, though it took some time before people understood that the latter didn’t rely primarily on the NSA’s exploit), the government as a whole may be deemed less trustworthy on efforts to respond to the attack.

Whether that was the intent or just a handy side benefit for the perpetrators of WannaCry (and of Shadow Brokers, who released the exploit) remains unclear. But the effect is clear: attacking people with NSA tools may undermine the credibility of the government, and in the process, its ability to respond to attacks.

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.

EO 12333 Sharing Will Likely Expose Security Researchers Even More Via Back Door Searches

At Motherboard, I have piece arguing that the best way to try to understand the Marcus Hutchins (MalwareTech) case is not from what we see in his indictment for authoring code that appears in a piece of Kronos malware sold in 2015. Instead, we should consider why Hutchins would look different to the FBI in 2016 (when the government didn’t arrest him while he was in Las Vegas) and 2017 (when they did). In 2016, he’d look like a bit player in a minor dark market purchase made in 2015. In 2017, he might look like a guy who had his finger on the WannaCry malware, but also whose purported product, Kronos, had been incorporated into a really powerful bot he had long closely tracked, Kelihos.

Hutchins’ name shows up in chats obtained in an investigation in some other district. Just one alias for Hutchins—his widely known “MalwareTech”—is mentioned in the indictment. None of the four or more aliases Hutchins may have used, mostly while still a minor, was included in the indictment, as those aliases likely would have been if the case in chief relied upon evidence under that alias.

Presuming the government’s collection of both sets of chat logs predates the WannaCry outbreak, if the FBI searched on Hutchins after he sinkholed the ransomware, both sets of chat logs would come up. Indeed, so would any other chat logs or—for example—email communications collected under Section 702 from providers like Yahoo, Google, and Apple, business records from which are included in the discovery to be provided in Hutchins’ case in FBI’s possession at that time. Indeed, such data would come up even if they showed no evidence of guilt on the part of Hutchins, but which might interest or alarm FBI investigators.

There is another known investigation that might elicit real concern (or interest) at the FBI if Hutchins’s name showed up in its internal Google search: the investigation into the Kelihos botnet, for which the government obtained a Rule 41 hacking warrant in Alaska on April 10 and announced the indictment of Russian Pyotr Levashov in Connecticut on April 21. Eleven lines describing the investigation in the affidavit for the hacking warrant remain redacted. In both its announcement of his arrest and in the complaint against Levashov for operating the Kelihos botnet, the government describes the Kelihos botnet loading “a malicious Word document designed to infect the computer with the Kronos banking Trojan.”

Hutchins has tracked the Kelihos botnet for years—he even attributes his job to that effort. Before his arrest and for a period that extended after Levashov’s arrest, Hutchins ran a Kelihos tracker, though it has gone dead since his arrest. In other words, the government believes a later version of the malware it accuses Hutchins of having a hand in writing was, up until the months before the WannaCry outbreak—being deployed by a botnet he closely tracked.

There are a number of other online discussions Hutchins might have participated in that would come up in an FBI search (again, even putting aside more dated activity from when he was a teenager). Notably, the attack on two separate fundraisers for his legal defense by credit card fraudsters suggests that corner of the criminal world doesn’t want Hutchins to mount an aggressive defense.

All of which is to say that the FBI is seeing a picture of Hutchins that is vastly different than the public is seeing from either just the indictment and known facts about Kronos, or even open source investigations into Hutchins’ past activity online.

To understand why Hutchins was arrested in 2017 but not in 2016, I argue, you need to understand what a back door search conducted on him in May would look like in connection with the WannaCry malware, not what the Kronos malware looks like as a risk to the US (it’s not a big one).

I also note, however, that in addition to the things FBI admitted they searched on during their FBI Google searches — Customs and Border Protection data, foreign intelligence reports, FBI’s own case files, and FISA data (both traditional and 702) — there’s something new in that pot: data collected under EO 12333 shared under January’s new sharing procedures.

That data is likely to expose a lot more security researchers for behavior that looks incriminating. That’s because FBI is almost certainly prioritizing asking NSA to share criminal hacker forums — where security researchers may interact with people they’re trying to defend against in ways that can look suspicious if reviewed out of context. That’s true, first of all, because many of those forums (and other dark web sites) are overseas, and so are more accessible to NSA collection. The crimes those forums facilitate definitely impact US victims. But criminal hacking data — as distinct from hacking data tied to a group that the government has argued is sponsored by a nation-state — is also less available via Section 702 collection, which as far as we know still limits cybersecurity collection to the Foreign Government certificate.

If I were the FBI I would have used the new rules to obtain vast swaths of data sitting in NSA’s coffers to facilitate cybersecurity investigations.

So among the NSA-collected data we should expect FBI newly obtained in raw form in January is that from criminal hacking forums. Indeed, new dark web collection may have facilitated FBI’s rather impressive global bust of several dark web marketing sites this year. (The sharing also means FBI will no longer have to go the same lengths to launder such data it obtains targeting kiddie porn, which it appears to have done in the PlayPen case.)

As I think is clear, such data will be invaluable for FBI as it continues to fight online crime that operates internationally. But because back door searches happen out of context, at a time when the FBI may not really understand what it is looking at, it also risks exposing security researchers in new ways to FBI’s scrutiny.

 

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.

A Tale of Two Malware Researchers: DOJ Presented Evidence Yu Pingan Knew His Malware Was Used as Such

The government revealed the arrest in California of a Chinese national, Yu Pingan, who is reportedly associated with the malware involved in the OPM hack.

The complaint that got him arrested, however, has nothing to do with the OPM hack. Rather, it involves four US companies (none of which are in the DC area), at least some of which are probably defense contractors.

Company A was headquartered in San Diego, California, Company B was headquartered in Massachusetts, Company C was headquartered in Los Angeles, California, and Company D was headquartered in Arizona.

Yu is introduced as a “malware broker.” But deep in the affidavit, the FBI describes Yu as running a site selling malware as a penetration testing tool.

UCC #1 repeatedly obtained malware from YU. For example, on or about March 3, 2013, YU emailed UCC #1 samples of two types of malware: “adjesus” and “hkdoor.” The FBI had difficulty deciphering adjesus, but open source records show that it was previously sold as a penetration testing tool (which is what legitimate security researchers call their hacking. tools) on the website penelab.com.5 Part of the coding for the second piece of malware, hkdoor, indicated that “Penelab” had created it for a customer named “Fangshou.”6 Seized communications and open source records show that YU ran the penelab.com website (e.g., he used his email address and real name to register it) and that UCC #1 used the nickname “Fangshou.”

For that reason — and because Yu was arrested as he arrived in the US for a conference — a few people have questioned whether a fair comparison can be made between Yu and Marcus Hutchins, AKA MalwareTech.

It’s an apples to oranges comparison, as DOJ rather pointedly hasn’t shared the affidavit behind Hutchins’ arrest warrant, so we don’t have as much detail on Hutchins. That said, Hutchins’ indictment doesn’t even allege any American victims, whereas Yu’s complaint makes it clear he (or his malware) was involved in hacking four different American companies (and yet, thus far, Yu has been accused with fewer crimes than Hutchins has).

In any case, at least what we’ve been given shows a clear difference. Over a year before providing Unindicted Co-Conspirator 1 two more pieces of malware, the complaint shows, UCC #1 told Yu he had compromised Microsoft Korea’s domain.

YU and UCC #1 ‘s communications include evidence tying them to the Sakula malware. On or about November 10, 2011, UCC #1 told YU that he had compromised the legitimate Korean Microsoft domain used to download software updates for Microsoft products. UCC #1 provided the site http://update.microsoft.kr/hacked.asp so YU could confirm his claim. UCC #1 explained that he could not use the URL to distribute fraudulent updates, but the compromised site could be used for hacking attacks known as phishing.

So unlike in Hutchins’ case, DOJ has provided evidence (and there’s more in the affidavit) that Yu knew he was providing malware to hack companies.

Indeed, unless the government has a lot more evidence against Hutchins (more on that in a second), it’s hard to see why they’ve been charged with the same two crimes, Conspiracy to violate CFAA and CFAA.

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.

Government Aims to Protect Other Ongoing Investigations in MalwareTech Case

In its request for a protection order governing discovery materials turned over to the defense in the Marcus Hutchins/MalwareTech case, the government provided this explanation of things it needed to keep secret.

The discovery in this matter may include information related to other ongoing investigations, malware, and investigative techniques employed by the United States during its investigation of Mr. Hutchins and others.

The government will always aim to protect investigative techniques — though in an international case investigating hackers, those techniques might well be rather interesting. Of particular interest, the government wants to hide techniques it may have used against Hutchins … and against others.

The government’s claim it needs to hide information on malware will disadvantage researchers who are analyzing the Kronos malware in an attempt to understand whether any code Hutchins created could be deemed to be original and necessary to the tool. For example, Polish researcher hasherezade showed that the hooking code Hutchins complained had been misappropriated from him in 2015, when the government claims he was helping his co-defendant revise Kronos, was not actually original to him.

The interesting thing about this part of Kronos is its similarity with a hooking engine described by MalwareTech on his blog in January 2015. Later, he complained in his tweet, that cybercriminals stolen and adopted his code. Looking at the hooking engine of Kronos we can see a big overlap, that made us suspect that this part of Kronos could be indeed based on his ideas. However, it turned out that this technique was described much earlier (i.e. here//thanks to  @xorsthings for the link ), and both authors learned it from other sources rather than inventing it.

Hasherezade may well have proven a key part of the government’s argument wrong here. Or she may be missing some other piece of code the government claims comes from Hutchins. By hiding any discussions about what code the government is actually looking at, though, it prevents the security community from definitely undermining the claims of the government, at least before trial.

Finally, there’s the reference to other, ongoing investigations.

One investigation of interest might be the Kelihos botnet. In the April complaint against Pyotr Levashov, the government claimed that the Kelihos botnet had infected victims with Kronos malware.

In addition to using Kelihos to distribute spam, the Defendant also profits by using Kelihos to directly install malware on victim computers. During FBI testing, Kelihos was observed installing ransomware onto a test machine, as well as “Vawtrak” banking Trojan (used to steal login credentials used at financial institutions), and a malicious Word document designed to infect the computer with the Kronos banking Trojan.

Unlike known uses of Kronos by itself, Kelihos is something that has victimized people in the United States; the government has indicted and is trying to extradite Pyotr Levashov in that case. So that may be one investigation the government is trying to protect.

It’s also possible that, in an effort to pressure Hutchins to take a plea deal, the government is investigating allegations he engaged in other criminal activity, activity that would more directly implicate him in criminal hacking. There’s little (aside from statutes of limitation) to prevent the government from doing that, and their decision to newly declare the case complex may suggest they’re threatening more damaging superseding indictments against Hutchins, if they can substantiate those allegations, to pressure him to take a plea deal.

Finally, there’s WannaCry. As I noted, while the government lifted some of the more onerous bail conditions on Hutchins, they added the restriction that he not touch the WannaCry sinkhole he set up in May. The reference to ongoing investigations may suggest the government will be discussing aspects of that investigation with Hutchins’ defense team, but wants to hide those details from the public.

Update: I’ve corrected the language regarding Kelihos to note that this doesn’t involve shared code. h/t ee for finding the reference.

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.

Government Changes Its Tune about MalwareTech

Marcus Hutchins, AKA MalwareTech, just plead not guilty at his arraignment in Milwaukee, WI. After the hearing, his attorney, Marcia Hofmann, called him a “hero” and said he would be fully vindicated.

A dramatic change in the tone of the government suggested that might well be the case. Whereas at Hutchins’ Las Vegas hearing, the government used his appearance at a tourist-focused gun range in an attempt to deny him bail, here, the government was amenable to lifting many of the restrictions on his release conditions. Hutchins will be able to live in Los Angeles, where his other attorney, Brian Klein, is. He will be able to continue working. He can travel throughout the US, though he cannot leave the country (though his defense tried to get him released to the UK).

About the only major restriction — aside from GPS monitoring and monitoring by pretrial services — is that he can’t touch the WannaCry sinkhole.

The government’s attorney, Michael Chmelar, described Hutchins’ alleged crimes as “historic,” a seeming concession that he’s not currently a threat. That said, while the government had not deemed this a complex crime when they indicted Hutchins back on July 11, Chmelar said he expected they would do so in the coming weeks. The trial is currently scheduled for October, but with a complex designation, that will slide.

Chmelar said that they had or would turn over today both Hutchins’ FBI interview, as well as two other recorded phone calls. The rest of discovery will be delayed until the defense signs a protection order.

Perhaps the funniest part of the hearing came when the lawyers tried to help Magistrate William Duffin understand what a “sinkhole” is.

Update: Fixed spelling of Hofmann’s last name–sorry Marcia!

Update: Forgot to mention — the case was assigned to JP Stadtmueller, a 75-year old Reagan appointee, formerly the Chief Judge of EDWI.

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.

Marcus Hutchins, the Word of God

Motherboard obtained the hearing transcript from Marcus Hutchins (AKA MalwareTech) court hearing on August 4. It reveals precisely the oblique language Prosecutor Dan Cowhig actually used, which got reported very differently, to explain Hutchins’ alleged admission to have authored the Kronos malware.

In his interview following his arrest, Mr. Hutchins admitted that he was the author of the code that became the Kronos malware and admitted that he had sold that code to another.

Compare that to this allegation, in Hutchins’ indictment.

It’s a very different thing to create code that may make up part of a package that would be sold on AlphaBay as malware and to write code that makes up part of the code ultimately packaged and sold as malware. It seems likely the government overstated what they had evidence of in the indictment (and, one wonders, to the grand jury), which might, in turn, significantly alter questions of intent.

Even with the government’s claim that Hutchins discussed getting paid for his code in chat logs (we’ll see about their provenance and accuracy after Hutchins goes broke trying to pay the bills in WI without a job, I guess), it’s not entirely clear the government even claims to have evidence that Hutchins wanted to sell a tool to rip off banks.

Which means that any eventual trial (assuming Hutchins doesn’t plea out of desperation) may turn on textual analysis of what it was some agents in WI bought off the dark web and what Hutchins coded years ago.

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.

[Photo: National Security Agency, Ft. Meade, MD via Wikimedia]

Rick Ledgett’s Straw Malware

For some reason, over a month after NotPetya and almost two months after WannaCry, former Deputy DIRNSA Rick Ledgett has decided now’s the time to respond to them by inventing a straw man argument denying the need for vulnerabilities disclosure. In the same (opening) paragraph where he claims the malware attacks have revived calls for the government to release all vulnerabilities, he accuses his opponents of oversimplification.

The WannaCry and Petya malware, both of which are partially based on hacking tools allegedly developed by the National Security Agency, have revived calls for the U.S. government to release all vulnerabilities that it holds.  Proponents argue this will allow for the development of patches, which will in turn ensure networks are secure.  On the face of it, this argument might seem to make sense, but it is actually a gross oversimplification of the problem, would not have the desired effect, and would in fact be dangerous.

Yet it’s Ledgett who is oversimplifying. What most people engaging in the VEP debate — even before two worms based, in part, on tools stolen from NSA — have asked for is for some kind of sense and transparency on the process by which NSA reviews vulnerabilities for disclosure. Ledgett instead poses his opponents as absolutists, asking for everything to be disclosed.

Ledgett then spends part of his column claiming that WannaCry targeted XP.

Users agree to buy the software “as is” and most software companies will attempt to patch vulnerabilities as they are discovered, unless the software has been made obsolete by the company, as was the case with Windows XP that WannaCry exploited.

[snip]

Customers who buy software should expect to have to patch it and update it to new versions periodically.

Except multiple reports said that XP wasn’t the problem, Windows 7 was. Ledgett’s mistake is all the more curious given reports that EternalBlue was blue screening at NSA when — while he was still at the agency — it was primarily focused on XP. That is, Ledgett is one of the people who might have expected WannaCry to crash XP; that he doesn’t even when I do doesn’t say a lot for NSA’s oversight of its exploits.

Ledgett then goes on to claim that WannaCry was a failed ransomware attack, even though that’s not entirely clear.

At least he understands NotPetya better, noting that the NSA component of that worm was largely a shiny object.

In fact, the primary damage caused by Petya resulted from credential theft, not an exploit.

The most disturbing part of Ledgett’s column, however, is that it takes him a good eight (of nine total) paragraphs to get around to addressing what really has been the specific response to WannaCry and NotPetya, a response shared by people on both sides of the VEP debate: NSA needs to secure its shit.

Some have made the analogy that the alleged U.S. government loss of control of their software tools is tantamount to losing control of Tomahawk missile systems, with the systems in the hands of criminal groups threatening to use them.  While the analogy is vivid, it incorrectly places all the fault on the government.  A more accurate rendering would be a missile in which the software industry built the warhead (vulnerabilities in their products), their customers built the rocket motor (failing to upgrade and patch), and the ransomware is the guidance system.

We are almost a full year past the day ShadowBrokers first came on the scene, threatening to leak NSA’s tools. A recent CyberScoop article suggests that, while government investigators now have a profile they believe ShadowBrokers matches, they’re not even entirely sure whether they’re looking for a disgruntled former IC insider, a current employee, or a contractor.

The U.S. government’s counterintelligence investigation into the so-called Shadow Brokers group is currently focused on identifying a disgruntled, former U.S. intelligence community insider, multiple people familiar with the matter told CyberScoop.

[snip]

While investigators believe that a former insider is involved, the expansive probe also spans other possibilities, including the threat of a current intelligence community employee being connected to the mysterious group.

[snip]

It’s not clear if the former insider was once a contractor or in-house employee of the secretive agency. Two people familiar with the matter said the investigation “goes beyond” Harold Martin, the former Booz Allen Hamilton contractor who is currently facing charges for taking troves of classified material outside a secure environment.

At least some of Shadow Brokers’ tools were stolen after Edward Snowden walked out of NSA Hawaii with the crown jewels, at a time when Rick Ledgett, personally, was leading a leak investigation into NSA’s vulnerabilities. And yet, over three years after Snowden stole his documents, the Rick Ledgett-led NSA still had servers sitting unlocked in their racks, still hadn’t addressed its privileged user issues.

Rick Ledgett, the guy inventing straw man arguments about absolutist VEP demands is a guy who’d do the country far more good if he talked about what NSA can do to lock down its shit — and explained why that shit didn’t get locked down when Ledgett was working on those issues specifically.

But he barely mentions that part of the response to WannaCry and NotPetya.

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.

The Kronos Needle in the AlphaBay Haystack

To set up a future post (see my earlier posts here and here), I want to show how remarkable it is that the Feds decided to prosecute Marcus Hutchins, a guy who allegedly contributed code to a piece of malware sold in June 2015 for $2,000 on AlphaBay, out of all the illicit sales they might have chosen to prosecute in the month after taking the site down.

First, let’s look at the Alexandre Cazes indictment, sworn by a Fresno Grand Jury on June 1, 2017, 41 days before the Hutchins indictment. It lists the following illicitly sold goods.

  • Redacted month 2015, redacted vendor sells a false driver license to an undercover officer in CA
  • Redacted month 2015, redacted vendor sells an ATM skimmer to an undercover officer in CA
  • Redacted month 2015, redacted vendor sells an ATM skimmer to an undercover officer in CA
  • December 29, 2015, vendor CC4L sells marijuana to MG, an undercover officer, which is mailed from Merced to Buffalo
  • Redacted short month date 2016, redacted vendor sells marijuana to an undercover officer, which is mailed from Los Angeles to a redacted city
  • Redacted month 2016, redacted vendor sells a false driver license to an undercover officer in CA
  • Redacted month 2016, redacted vendor sells a false driver license to an undercover officer in CA
  • Redacted month 2016, redacted vendor sells a false driver license to an undercover officer in CA
  • May 16, 2016, vendor A51 sells heroin to an undercover officer, which is mailed from Brooklyn to Fresno
  • May 24, 2016, vendor A51 sells heroin to an undercover officer, which is mailed from Brooklyn to Fresno
  • October 20, 2016, vendor BSB sells heroin and fentanyl to an undercover officer, which is mailed from San Francisco to Fresno
  • Redacted (short month) date 2017, redacted vendor sells meth to an undercover officer, which is mailed between two CA cities

The sale of a piece of malware for $2,000 on June 11, 2015 would be earlier than most of those listed in the indictment that brought AlphaBay’s operator down. And while there are several ATM skimmers listed (a violation of 18 USC 1029) there is no malware listed (in two of Hutchins’ charges listed as violations of 18 USC 1030, the CFAA statute).

Now look at the overall numbers FBI boasted for AlphaBay when it announced its takedown on July 20, nine days after the indictment targeting Hutchins.

AlphaBay reported that it serviced more than 200,000 users and 40,000 vendors. Around the time of takedown, the site had more than 250,000 listings for illegal drugs and toxic chemicals, and more than 100,000 listings for stolen and fraudulent identification documents, counterfeit goods, malware and other computer hacking tools, firearms, and fraudulent services. By comparison, the Silk Road dark market—the largest such enterprise of its kind before it was shut down in 2013—had approximately 14,000 listings.

The operation to seize AlphaBay’s servers was led by the FBI and involved the cooperative efforts of law enforcement agencies in Thailand, the Netherlands, Lithuania, Canada, the United Kingdom, and France, along with the European law enforcement agency Europol.

“Conservatively, several hundred investigations across the globe were being conducted at the same time as a result of AlphaBay’s illegal activities,” Phirippidis said. “It really took an all-hands effort among law enforcement worldwide to deconflict and protect those ongoing investigations.”

Of the 40,000 vendors charged within a month of takedown, of the 250K drug listings and the 100K fraudulent services listings, the guy who sold Kronos once for $2,000 (whom Tom Fox-Brewster thinks might be a guy named VinnyK) — and by virtue of American conspiracy laws, Hutchins — were among the first 20 or so known to be charged for using AlphaBay.

Admittedly, we’re seeing EDCA’s sales in Cazes’ indictment because they had the lead on the overall takedown. Perhaps EDWI has 1,000 more malware buys it will get around to charging, as soon as its perpetrators decide to come to the US, as Hutchins did.

But put in this light, it looks even more remarkable how quickly they got around to arresting to the alleged co-conspirator of a guy who sold a piece of malware.

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.

MalwareTech’s FBI-Induced Tour to Milwaukee, WI

On Friday, WannaCry hero Marcus Hutchins (AKA MalwareTech) was granted bail by a Las Vegas judge; he will pay his bail on Monday, then have to travel, without a passport to show TSA, to Milwaukee for a court appearance Tuesday (I’m contemplating hopping the ferry for the hearing).

I’d like to focus on the venue, how it is that a British malware researcher came to be charged in Flyover USA for the crime of making malware.

Thomas Brewster-Fox wrote an important piece on Friday trying to figure out what a lot of people have been asking: what is Kronos, which a lot of researchers never really heard of. He notes that the malware was a bust in the criminal malware market.

The reduced price hints at another truth about Kronos: it was largely a failure amongst serious cybercriminals. There was early anticipation in 2014 it could go big, as prolific and profitable as one of its forbears, the banking malware known as Zeus. In an email to your reporter from RSA’s Daniel Cohen in 2014, he wrote: “Waiting to see whether Kronos turns into something. At this point it’s just a post on a forum, no sample or binary yet. It could be an interesting development if it does, as it would point to more movement away from the Zeus code.”

In the last 24 months, according to IBM global executive security advisor Limor Kessem, the Trojan emerged with a hefty $7,000 price tag in mid-2014, but actual attacks didn’t launch until the third and fourth quarter of 2015, when the company saw some Kronos malware campaigns hitting UK banks. “But after that timeframe, have not seen much more activity from the malware,” Kessem told Forbes.

“The very last time we saw Kronos activity was a small campaign in November 2016, when Kronos infected a very small number of machines mostly in Brazil, the UK, Japan, and Canada. At that particular time, we did not see fraudulent activity from Kronos, but rather, believe it was used a loader for other malware.

Importantly, IBM global executive security advisor Limor Kessem names the few places where the malware has been deployed: Some UK banks in the last two quarters of 2015 and then, in altered form and function, in a “very small number of machines” in Brazil, UK, Japan, and Canada.

So: UK, Brazil, UK, Japan, and Canada.

Not the US, as far as Kessem notes.

And in fact, the most commonly cited victim, the UK, is where Hutchins is from! Yet among the things the British National Cyber Security Centre — the folks who worked closely with Hutchins as he saved a bunch of NHS hospitals from being shut down due to the WannaCry malware — has been really circumspect about since Hutchins’ arrest is what the case is doing over here in the States.

We are aware of the situation. This is a law enforcement matter and it would be inappropriate to comment further.

So why are we seeing this case in the US — in Milwaukee, of all places?!?! — rather than in the UK where some of its few victims are?

The indictment against Hutchins includes just two actions he is alleged to have taken personally.

Defendant MARCUS HUTCHINS created the Kronos malware. (¶4a)

[snip]

In or around February 2015, defendants MARCUS HUTCHINS and [redacted] updated the Kronos malware. (¶4d)

All the other overt actions described in the indictment were done by Hutchins’ as yet unknown (even to him, per reports!) and still at-large co-defendant. That includes this action:

On or about June 11, 2015, defendant [redacted] sold a version of the Kronos malware in exchange for approximately $2,000 in digital currency. [emphasis mine]

Most the other charges — counts three through six — cite that June 11 sale. So it’s that sale, in which Hutchins was not alleged to be involved and the alleged perpetrator of which hasn’t yet been arrested, that seems to be the core of the crime.

This Beeb article, by far the most detailed accounting of Hutchins’ arraignment, provides these details.

Prosecutors told a Las Vegas court on Friday that Mr Hutchins had been caught in a sting operation when undercover officers bought the code.

They claimed the software was sold for $2,000 in digital currency in June 2015.

Dan Cowhig, prosecuting, also told the court that Mr Hutchins had made a confession during a police interview.

“He admitted he was the author of the code of Kronos malware and indicated he sold it,” said Mr Cowhig.

The lawyer claimed there was evidence of chat logs between Mr Hutchins and an unnamed co-defendant – who has yet to be arrested – where the security researcher complained of not receiving a fair share of the money.

From this, it might be safe to assume that some law enforcement officer, possibly working undercover in the Eastern District of WI, bought a bunch of shit off AlphaBay in 2015, including a copy of (a version of) the Kronos malware. The purchase (and the version of code) wasn’t sufficiently interesting last year to arrest Hutchins when (I believe) he came for the Las Vegas cons.

Nor was it interesting enough to the UK, where some of Kronos’ few victims are, to prosecute the sale (which, because conspiracy laws are not as broad as they are here in the US, might not have reached Hutchins in any case, and certainly wouldn’t have exposed him to decades of incarceration).

But this year, in the days after the Alpha Bay seizure (and several months after Hutchins helped to shut down WannaCry), prosecutors presented that $2000 sale to a grand jury in ED WI, after which an arrest warrant was sent out to Las Vegas, just in time to arrest Hutchins on his way out of the country, after most the unruly hackers had departed from Las Vegas.

Arresting Hutchins only as he left — and playing whack-a-mole moving him from one detention center to another — gave authorities the opportunity to interview Hutchins without an attorney, where — prosecutor Dan Cowhig claims, Hutchins “made a confession,” — not that he “created the Kronos malware,” which is what the indictment alleges, but instead that he “was the author of the code of Kronos malware.” That “confession” sounds like the kind of thing an overly helpful person might explain if asked to explain this tweet in circumstances where he didn’t have a lawyer.

So here’s what may be going on.

In the aftermath of the AlphaBay seizure, authorities in the US decided to wade through what they could charge from past purchases off the marketplace, and either remembered or stumbled on this remarkably minor sale. Perhaps because of Hutchins’ fame, or perhaps because someone is unhappy about Hutchins’ fame, it was prioritized in a way it otherwise would not have been. And, as always, the US used convenient travel as a way to nab foreign alleged hackers to pull into America’s far more onerous than its allies criminal justice system.

It’s not even clear, however, that that explains the Milwaukee venue. Recall that DOJ first charged Pyotr Levashov (and therefore first deployed its now legally sanctioned Rule 41 warrant) for the Kelihos botnet in Alaska, even though he’ll be tried in CT if he’s ever extradited to the US. The FBI reorganized the way they investigate cyber crimes in 2014 (no longer tying the investigation to the geography of the crime) and with Rule 41 and international crimes, they’ll be able to do so far more in the future. But at least with Levashov, there were victims referenced in the complaint, whereas here, the only act that may have taken place in ED WI is that purchase, if it even did.

All that said, the venue is a far less interesting question than whether the FBI really has evidence tying Hutchins to intending his code to be used for malware, or if they’ve just made a horrible mistake.

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.