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Yet Another Russian Hack of the NSA — This Time with Kaspersky’s Help

The Wall Street Journal has a bombshell of a story. Yet another NSA contractor took classified documents home with him. Yet another Russian intelligence operation stole copies of those documents. The twist this time is that the Russians identified the documents because the contractor had Kaspersky Labs anti-virus installed on his home computer.

This is a huge deal, both for the NSA and Kaspersky. The Wall Street Journal article contains no evidence, only unnamed sources. But I am having trouble seeing how the already embattled Kaspersky Labs survives this.

WSJ follow up. Four more news articles.

EDITED TO ADD: This is either an example the Russians subverting a perfectly reasonable security feature in Kaspersky’s products, or Kaspersky adding a plausible feature at the request of Russian intelligence. In the latter case, it’s a nicely deniable Russian information operation. In either case, it’s an impressive Russian information operation.

What’s getting a lot less press is yet another NSA contractor stealing top-secret cyberattack software. What is it with the NSA’s inability to keep anything secret anymore?

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NSA Insider Security Post-Snowden

According to a recently declassified report obtained under FOIA, the NSA’s attempts to protect itself against insider attacks aren’t going very well:

The N.S.A. failed to consistently lock racks of servers storing highly classified data and to secure data center machine rooms, according to the report, an investigation by the Defense Department’s inspector general completed in 2016.

[…]

The agency also failed to meaningfully reduce the number of officials and contractors who were empowered to download and transfer data classified as top secret, as well as the number of “privileged” users, who have greater power to access the N.S.A.’s most sensitive computer systems. And it did not fully implement software to monitor what those users were doing.

In all, the report concluded, while the post-Snowden initiative — called “Secure the Net” by the N.S.A. — had some successes, it “did not fully meet the intent of decreasing the risk of insider threats to N.S.A. operations and the ability of insiders to exfiltrate data.”

Marcy Wheeler comments:

The IG report examined seven of the most important out of 40 “Secure the Net” initiatives rolled out since Snowden began leaking classified information. Two of the initiatives aspired to reduce the number of people who had the kind of access Snowden did: those who have privileged access to maintain, configure, and operate the NSA’s computer systems (what the report calls PRIVACs), and those who are authorized to use removable media to transfer data to or from an NSA system (what the report calls DTAs).

But when DOD’s inspectors went to assess whether NSA had succeeded in doing this, they found something disturbing. In both cases, the NSA did not have solid documentation about how many such users existed at the time of the Snowden leak. With respect to PRIVACs, in June 2013 (the start of the Snowden leak), “NSA officials stated that they used a manually kept spreadsheet, which they no longer had, to identify the initial number of privileged users.” The report offered no explanation for how NSA came to no longer have that spreadsheet just as an investigation into the biggest breach thus far at NSA started. With respect to DTAs, “NSA did not know how many DTAs it had because the manually kept list was corrupted during the months leading up to the security breach.”

There seem to be two possible explanations for the fact that the NSA couldn’t track who had the same kind of access that Snowden exploited to steal so many documents. Either the dog ate their homework: Someone at NSA made the documents unavailable (or they never really existed). Or someone fed the dog their homework: Some adversary made these lists unusable. The former would suggest the NSA had something to hide as it prepared to explain why Snowden had been able to walk away with NSA’s crown jewels. The latter would suggest that someone deliberately obscured who else in the building might walk away with the crown jewels. Obscuring that list would be of particular value if you were a foreign adversary planning on walking away with a bunch of files, such as the set of hacking tools the Shadow Brokers have since released, which are believed to have originated at NSA.

Read the whole thing. Securing against insiders, especially those with technical access, is difficult, but I had assumed the NSA did more post-Snowden.

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More Data on Attributing the Sony Attack

An analysis of the timestamps on some of the leaked documents shows that they were downloaded at USB 2.0 speeds — which implies an insider.

Our Gotnews.com investigation into the data that has been released by the “hackers” shows that someone at Sony was copying 182GB at minimum the night of the 21st — the very same day that Sony Pictures’ head of corporate communications, Charles Sipkins, publicly resigned from a $600,000 job. This could be a coincidence but it seems unlikely. Sipkins’s former client was NewsCorp and Sipkins was officially fired by Pascal’s husband over a snub by the Hollywood Reporter.

Two days later a malware bomb occurred.

We are left with several conclusions about the malware incident:

  1. The “hackers” did this leak physically at a Sony LAN workstation. Remember Sony’s internal security is hard on the outside squishy in the center and so it wouldn’t be difficult for an insider to harm Sony by downloading the material in much the same way Bradley Manning or Edward Snowden did at their respective posts.

  2. If the “hackers” already had copies, then it’s possible they made a local copy the night of the 21st to prepare for publishing them as a link in the malware screens on the 24th.

Sony CEO Michael Lynton’s released emails go up to November 21, 2014. Lynton got the “God’sApstls” email demand for money on the 21st at 12:44pm.

Other evidence implies insiders as well:

Working on the premise that it would take an insider with detailed knowledge of the Sony systems in order to gain access and navigate the breadth of the network to selectively exfiltrate the most sensitive of data, researchers from Norse Corporation are focusing on this group based in part on leaked human resources documents that included data on a series of layoffs at Sony that took place in the Spring of 2014.

The researchers tracked the activities of the ex-employee on underground forums where individuals in the U.S., Europe and Asia may have communicated prior to the attack.

The investigators believe the disgruntled former employee or employees may have joined forces with pro-piracy hacktivists, who have long resented the Sony’s anti-piracy stance, to infiltrate the company’s networks.

I have been skeptical of the insider theory. It requires us to postulate the existence of a single person who has both insider knowledge and the requisite hacking skill. And since I don’t believe that insider knowledge was required, it seemed unlikely that the hackers had it. But these results point in that direction.

Pointing in a completely different direction, a linguistic analysis of the grammatical errors in the hacker communications implies that they are Russian speakers:

Taia Global, Inc. has examined the written evidence left by the attackers in an attempt to scientifically determine nationality through Native Language Identification (NLI). We tested for Korean, Mandarin Chinese, Russian, and German using an analysis of L1 interference. Our preliminary results show that Sony’s attackers were most likely Russian, possibly but not likely Korean and definitely not Mandarin Chinese or German.

The FBI still blames North Korea:

The FBI said Monday it was standing behind its assessment, adding that evidence doesn’t support any other explanations.

“The FBI has concluded the government of North Korea is responsible for the theft and destruction of data on the network of Sony Pictures Entertainment. Attribution to North Korea is based on intelligence from the FBI, the U.S. intelligence community, DHS, foreign partners and the private sector,” a spokeswoman said in a statement. “There is no credible information to indicate that any other individual is responsible for this cyber incident.”

Although it is now thinking that the North Koreans hired outside hackers:

U.S. investigators believe that North Korea likely hired hackers from outside the country to help with last month’s massive cyberattack against Sony Pictures, an official close to the investigation said on Monday.

As North Korea lacks the capability to conduct some elements of the sophisticated campaign by itself, the official said, U.S. investigators are looking at the possibility that Pyongyang “contracted out” some of the cyber work.

This is nonsense. North Korea has had extensive offensive cyber capabilities for years. And it has extensive support from China.

Even so, lots of security experts don’t believe that it’s North Korea. Marc Rogers picks the FBI’s evidence apart pretty well.

So in conclusion, there is NOTHING here that directly implicates the North Koreans. In fact, what we have is one single set of evidence that has been stretched out into 3 separate sections, each section being cited as evidence that the other section is clear proof of North Korean involvement. As soon as you discredit one of these pieces of evidence, the whole house of cards will come tumbling down.

But, as I wrote earlier this month:

Tellingly, the FBI’s press release says that the bureau’s conclusion is only based “in part” on these clues. This leaves open the possibility that the government has classified evidence that North Korea is behind the attack. The NSA has been trying to eavesdrop on North Korea’s government communications since the Korean War, and it’s reasonable to assume that its analysts are in pretty deep. The agency might have intelligence on the planning process for the hack. It might, say, have phone calls discussing the project, weekly PowerPoint status reports, or even Kim Jong Un’s sign-off on the plan.

On the other hand, maybe not. I could have written the same thing about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of that country, and we all know how wrong the government was about that.

I also wrote that bluffing about this is a smart strategy for the US government:

…from a diplomatic perspective, it’s a smart strategy for the US to be overconfident in assigning blame for the cyberattacks. Beyond the politics of this particular attack, the long-term US interest is to discourage other nations from engaging in similar behavior. If the North Korean government continues denying its involvement, no matter what the truth is, and the real attackers have gone underground, then the US decision to claim omnipotent powers of attribution serves as a warning to others that they will get caught if they try something like this.

Of course, this strategy completely backfires if the attackers can be definitely shown to be not from North Korea. Stay tuned for more.

EDITED TO ADD (12/31): Lots of people in the comments are doubting the USB claim.

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