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Fighting Leakers at Apple

Apple is fighting its own battle against leakers, using people and tactics from the NSA.

According to the hour-long presentation, Apple’s Global Security team employs an undisclosed number of investigators around the world to prevent information from reaching competitors, counterfeiters, and the press, as well as hunt down the source when leaks do occur. Some of these investigators have previously worked at U.S. intelligence agencies like the National Security Agency (NSA), law enforcement agencies like the FBI and the U.S. Secret Service, and in the U.S. military.

The information is from an internal briefing, which was leaked.

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Who is Publishing NSA and CIA Secrets, and Why?

There’s something going on inside the intelligence communities in at least two countries, and we have no idea what it is.

Consider these three data points. One: someone, probably a country’s intelligence organization, is dumping massive amounts of cyberattack tools belonging to the NSA onto the Internet. Two: someone else, or maybe the same someone, is doing the same thing to the CIA.

Three: in March, NSA Deputy Director Richard Ledgett described how the NSA penetrated the computer networks of a Russian intelligence agency and was able to monitor them as they attacked the US State Department in 2014. Even more explicitly, a US ally­ — my guess is the UK — ­was not only hacking the Russian intelligence agency’s computers, but also the surveillance cameras inside their building. “They [the US ally] monitored the [Russian] hackers as they maneuvered inside the U.S. systems and as they walked in and out of the workspace, and were able to see faces, the officials said.”

Countries don’t often reveal intelligence capabilities: “sources and methods.” Because it gives their adversaries important information about what to fix, it’s a deliberate decision done with good reason. And it’s not just the target country who learns from a reveal. When the US announces that it can see through the cameras inside the buildings of Russia’s cyber warriors, other countries immediately check the security of their own cameras.

With all this in mind, let’s talk about the recent leaks at NSA and the CIA.

Last year, a previously unknown group called the Shadow Brokers started releasing NSA hacking tools and documents from about three years ago. They continued to do so this year — ­five sets of files in all­ — and have implied that more classified documents are to come. We don’t know how they got the files. When the Shadow Brokers first emerged, the general consensus was that someone had found and hacked an external NSA staging server. These are third-party computers that the NSA’s TAO hackers use to launch attacks from. Those servers are necessarily stocked with TAO attack tools. This matched the leaks, which included a “script” directory and working attack notes. We’re not sure if someone inside the NSA made a mistake that left these files exposed, or if the hackers that found the cache got lucky.

That explanation stopped making sense after the latest Shadow Brokers release, which included attack tools against Windows, PowerPoint presentations, and operational notes — ­documents that are definitely not going to be on an external NSA staging server. A credible theory, which I first heard from Nicholas Weaver, is that the Shadow Brokers are publishing NSA data from multiple sources. The first leaks were from an external staging server, but the more recent leaks are from inside the NSA itself.

So what happened? Did someone inside the NSA accidentally mount the wrong server on some external network? That’s possible, but seems very unlikely. Did someone hack the NSA itself? Could there be a mole inside the NSA, as Kevin Poulsen speculated?

If it is a mole, my guess is that he’s already been arrested. There are enough individualities in the files to pinpoint exactly where and when they came from. Surely the NSA knows who could have taken the files. No country would burn a mole working for it by publishing what he delivered. Intelligence agencies know that if they betray a source this severely, they’ll never get another one.

That points to two options. The first is that the files came from Hal Martin. He’s the NSA contractor who was arrested in August for hoarding agency secrets in his house for two years. He can’t be the publisher, because the Shadow Brokers are in business even though he is in prison. But maybe the leaker got the documents from his stash: either because Martin gave the documents to them or because he himself was hacked. The dates line up, so it’s theoretically possible, but the contents of the documents speak to someone with a different sort of access. There’s also nothing in the public indictment against Martin that speaks to his selling secrets to a foreign power, and I think it’s exactly the sort of thing that the NSA would leak. But maybe I’m wrong about all of this; Occam’s Razor suggests that it’s him.

The other option is a mysterious second NSA leak of cyberattack tools. The only thing I have ever heard about this is from a Washington Post story about Martin: “But there was a second, previously undisclosed breach of cybertools, discovered in the summer of 2015, which was also carried out by a TAO employee, one official said. That individual also has been arrested, but his case has not been made public. The individual is not thought to have shared the material with another country, the official said.” But “not thought to have” is not the same as not having done so.

On the other hand, it’s possible that someone penetrated the internal NSA network. We’ve already seen NSA tools that can do that kind of thing to other networks. That would be huge, and explain why there were calls to fire NSA Director Mike Rogers last year.

The CIA leak is both similar and different. It consists of a series of attack tools from about a year ago. The most educated guess amongst people who know stuff is that the data is from an almost-certainly air-gapped internal development wiki­a Confluence server­ — and either someone on the inside was somehow coerced into giving up a copy of it, or someone on the outside hacked into the CIA and got themselves a copy. They turned the documents over to WikiLeaks, which continues to publish it.

This is also a really big deal, and hugely damaging for the CIA. Those tools were new, and they’re impressive. I have been told that the CIA is desperately trying to hire coders to replace what was lost.

For both of these leaks, one big question is attribution: who did this? A whistleblower wouldn’t sit on attack tools for years before publishing. A whistleblower would act more like Snowden or Manning, publishing immediately — ­and publishing documents that discuss what the US is doing to whom, not simply a bunch of attack tools. It just doesn’t make sense. Neither does random hackers. Or cybercriminals. I think it’s being done by a country or countries.

My guess was, and is still, Russia in both cases. Here’s my reasoning. Whoever got this information years before and is leaking it now has to 1) be capable of hacking the NSA and/or the CIA, and 2) willing to publish it all. Countries like Israel and France are certainly capable, but wouldn’t ever publish. Countries like North Korea or Iran probably aren’t capable. The list of countries who fit both criteria is small: Russia, China, and…and…and I’m out of ideas. And China is currently trying to make nice with the US.

Last August, Edward Snowden guessed Russia, too.

So Russia — ­or someone else­ — steals these secrets, and presumably uses them to both defend its own networks and hack other countries while deflecting blame for a couple of years. For it to publish now means that the intelligence value of the information is now lower than the embarrassment value to the NSA and CIA. This could be because the US figured out that its tools were hacked, and maybe even by whom; which would make the tools less valuable against US government targets, although still valuable against third parties.

The message that comes with publishing seems clear to me: “We are so deep into your business that we don’t care if we burn these few-years-old capabilities, as well as the fact that we have them. There’s just nothing you can do about it.” It’s bragging.

Which is exactly the same thing Ledgett is doing to the Russians. Maybe the capabilities he talked about are long gone, so there’s nothing lost in exposing sources and methods. Or maybe he too is bragging: saying to the Russians that he doesn’t care if they know. He’s certainly bragging to every other country that is paying attention to his remarks. (He may be bluffing, of course, hoping to convince others that the US has intelligence capabilities it doesn’t.)

What happens when intelligence agencies go to war with each other and don’t tell the rest of us? I think there’s something going on between the US and Russia that the public is just seeing pieces of. We have no idea why, or where it will go next, and can only speculate.

This essay previously appeared on

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Security Risks of TSA PreCheck

Former TSA Administrator Kip Hawley wrote an op-ed pointing out the security vulnerabilities in the TSA’s PreCheck program:

The first vulnerability in the system is its enrollment process, which seeks to verify an applicant’s identity. We know verification is a challenge: A 2011 Government Accountability Office report on TSA’s system for checking airport workers’ identities concluded that it was “not designed to provide reasonable assurance that only qualified applicants” got approved. It’s not a stretch to believe a reasonably competent terrorist could construct an identity that would pass PreCheck’s front end.

The other step in PreCheck’s “intelligence-driven, risk-based security strategy” is absurd on its face: The absence of negative information about a person doesn’t mean he or she is trustworthy. News reports are filled with stories of people who seemed to be perfectly normal right up to the moment they committed a heinous act. There is no screening algorithm and no database check that can accurately predict human behavior — especially on the scale of millions. It is axiomatic that terrorist organizations recruit operatives who have clean backgrounds and interview well.

None of this is news.

Back in 2004, I wrote:

Imagine you’re a terrorist plotter with half a dozen potential terrorists at your disposal. They all apply for a card, and three get one. Guess which are going on the mission? And they’ll buy round-trip tickets with credit cards and have a “normal” amount of luggage with them.

What the Trusted Traveler program does is create two different access paths into the airport: high security and low security. The intent is that only good guys will take the low-security path, and the bad guys will be forced to take the high-security path, but it rarely works out that way. You have to assume that the bad guys will find a way to take the low-security path.

The Trusted Traveler program is based on the dangerous myth that terrorists match a particular profile and that we can somehow pick terrorists out of a crowd if we only can identify everyone. That’s simply not true. Most of the 9/11 terrorists were unknown and not on any watch list. Timothy McVeigh was an upstanding US citizen before he blew up the Oklahoma City Federal Building. Palestinian suicide bombers in Israel are normal, nondescript people. Intelligence reports indicate that Al Qaeda is recruiting non-Arab terrorists for US operations.

I wrote much the same thing in 2007:

Background checks are based on the dangerous myth that we can somehow pick terrorists out of a crowd if we could identify everyone. Unfortunately, there isn’t any terrorist profile that prescreening can uncover. Timothy McVeigh could probably have gotten one of these cards. So could have Eric Rudolph, the pipe bomber at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. There isn’t even a good list of known terrorists to check people against; the government list used by the airlines has been the butt of jokes for years.

And have we forgotten how prevalent identity theft is these days? If you think having a criminal impersonating you to your bank is bad, wait until they start impersonating you to the Transportation Security Administration.

The truth is that whenever you create two paths through security — a high-security path and a low-security path — you have to assume that the bad guys will find a way to exploit the low-security path. It may be counterintuitive, but we are all safer if the people chosen for more thorough screening are truly random and not based on an error-filled database or a cursory background check.

In a companion blog post, Hawley has more details about why the program doesn’t work:

In the sense that PreCheck bars people who were identified by intelligence or law enforcement agencies as possible terrorists, then it was intelligence-driven. But using that standard for PreCheck is ridiculous since those people already get extra screening or are on the No-Fly list. The movie Patriots Day, out now, reminds us of the tragic and preventable Boston Marathon bombing. The FBI sent agents to talk to the Tsarnaev brothers and investigate them as possible terror suspects. And cleared them. Even they did not meet the “intelligence-driven” definition used in PreCheck.

The other problem with “intelligence-driven” in the PreCheck context is that intelligence actually tells us the opposite; specifically that terrorists pick clean operatives. If TSA uses current intelligence to evaluate risk, it would not be out enrolling everybody they can into pre-9/11 security for everybody not flagged by the security services.

Hawley and I may agree on the problem, but we have completely opposite solutions. The op-ed was too short to include details, but they’re in a companion blog post. Basically, he wants to screen PreCheck passengers more:

In the interests of space, I left out details of what I would suggest as short-and medium-term solutions. Here are a few ideas:

  • Immediately scrub the PreCheck enrollees for false identities. That can probably be accomplished best and most quickly by getting permission from members, and then using, commercial data. If the results show that PreCheck has already been penetrated, the program should be suspended.

  • Deploy K-9 teams at PreCheck lanes.

  • Use Behaviorally trained officers to interact with and check the credentials of PreCheck passengers.

  • Use Explosives Trace Detection cotton swabs on PreCheck passengers at a much higher rate. Same with removing shoes.

  • Turn on the body scanners and keep them fully utilized.

  • Allow liquids to stay in the carry-on since TSA scanners can detect threat liquids.

  • Work with the airlines to keep the PreCheck experience positive.

  • Work with airports to place PreCheck lanes away from regular checkpoints so as not to diminish lane capacity for non-PreCheck passengers. Rental Car check-in areas could be one alternative. Also, downtown check-in and screening (with secure transport to the airport) is a possibility.

These solutions completely ignore the data from the real-world experiment PreCheck has been. Hawley writes that PreCheck tells us that “terrorists pick clean operatives.” That’s exactly wrong. PreCheck tells us that, basically, there are no terrorists. If 1) it’s an easier way through airport security that terrorists will invariably use, and 2) there have been no instances of terrorists using it in the 10+ years it and its predecessors have been in operation, then the inescapable conclusion is that the threat is minimal. Instead of screening PreCheck passengers more, we should screen everybody else less. This is me in 2012: “I think the PreCheck level of airport screening is what everyone should get, and that the no-fly list and the photo ID check add nothing to security.”

I agree with Hawley that we need to overhaul airport security. Me in 2010: “Airport security is the last line of defense, and it’s not a very good one.” We need to recognize that the actual risk is much lower than we fear, and ratchet airport security down accordingly. And then we need to continue to invest in investigation and intelligence: security measures that work regardless of the tactic or target.

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Intelligence Oversight and How It Can Fail

Former NSA attorneys John DeLong and Susan Hennessay have written a fascinating article describing a particular incident of oversight failure inside the NSA. Technically, the story hinges on a definitional difference between the NSA and the FISA court meaning of the word “archived.” (For the record, I would have defaulted to the NSA’s interpretation, which feels more accurate technically.) But while the story is worth reading, what’s especially interesting are the broader issues about how a nontechnical judiciary can provide oversight over a very technical data collection-and-analysis organization — especially if the oversight must largely be conducted in secret.

From the article:

Broader root cause analysis aside, the BR FISA debacle made clear that the specific matter of shared legal interpretation needed to be addressed. Moving forward, the government agreed that NSA would coordinate all significant legal interpretations with DOJ. That sounds like an easy solution, but making it meaningful in practice is highly complex. Consider this example: a court order might require that “all collected data must be deleted after two years.” NSA engineers must then make a list for the NSA attorneys:

  1. What does deleted mean? Does it mean make inaccessible to analysts or does it mean forensically wipe off the system so data is gone forever? Or does it mean something in between?

  2. What about backup systems used solely for disaster recovery? Does the data need to be removed there, too, within two years, even though it’s largely inaccessible and typically there is a planned delay to account for mistakes in the operational system?

  3. When does the timer start?

  4. What’s the legally-relevant unit of measurement for timestamp computation­ — a day, an hour, a second, a millisecond?

  5. If a piece of data is deleted one second after two years, is that an incident of noncompliance? What about a delay of one day? ….

  6. What about various system logs that simply record the fact that NSA had a data object, but no significant details of the actual object? Do those logs need to be deleted too? If so, how soon?

  7. What about hard copy printouts?

And that is only a tiny sample of the questions that need to be answered for that small sentence fragment. Put yourself in the shoes of an NSA attorney: which of these questions — ­in particular the answers­ — require significant interpretations to be coordinated with DOJ and which determinations can be made internally?

Now put yourself in the shoes of a DOJ attorney who receives from an NSA attorney a subset of this list for advice and counsel. Which questions are truly significant from your perspective? Are there any questions here that are so significant they should be presented to the Court so that that government can be sufficiently confident that the Court understands how the two-year rule is really being interpreted and applied?

In many places I have separated different kinds of oversight: are we doing things right versus are we doing the right things? This is very much about the first: is the NSA complying with the rules the courts impose on them? This is about the first kind. I believe that the NSA tries very hard to follow the rules it’s given, while at the same time being very aggressive about how it interprets any kind of ambiguities and using its nonadversarial relationship with its overseers to its advantage.

The only possible solution I can see to all of this is more public scrutiny. Secrecy is toxic here.

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NSA Contractor Arrested for Stealing Classified Information

The NSA has another contractor who stole classified documents. It’s a weird story: “But more than a month later, the authorities cannot say with certainty whether Mr. Martin leaked the information, passed them on to a third party or whether he simply downloaded them.” So maybe a potential leaker. Or a spy. Or just a document collector.

My guess is that there are many leakers inside the US government, even more than what’s on this list from last year.

EDITED TO ADD (10/7): More information.

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Electronic Surveillance Failures Leading up to the 2008 Mumbai Terrorist Attacks

Long New York Times article based on “former American and Indian officials and classified documents disclosed by Edward J. Snowden” outlining the intelligence failures leading up to the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks:

Although electronic eavesdropping often yields valuable data, even tantalizing clues can be missed if the technology is not closely monitored, the intelligence gleaned from it is not linked with other information, or analysis does not sift incriminating activity from the ocean of digital data.

This seems to be the moral:

Although the United States computer arsenal plays a vital role against targets ranging from North Korea’s suspected assault on Sony to Russian cyberthieves and Chinese military hacking units, counterterrorism requires a complex mix of human and technical resources. Some former counterterrorism officials warn against promoting billion-dollar surveillance programs with the narrow argument that they stop attacks.

That monitoring collects valuable information, but large amounts of it are “never meaningfully reviewed or analyzed,” said Charles (Sam) Faddis, a retired C.I.A. counterterrorism chief. “I cannot remember a single instance in my career when we ever stopped a plot based purely on signals intelligence.”


Intelligence officials say that terror plots are often discernible only in hindsight, when a pattern suddenly emerges from what had been just bits of information. Whatever the reason, no one fully grasped the developing Mumbai conspiracy.

“They either weren’t looking or didn’t understand what it all meant,” said one former American official who had access to the intelligence and would speak only on the condition of anonymity. “There was a lot more noise than signal. There usually is.”

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