Facing skepticism by experts, NSA backs down in global encryption standards debate

NSARepresentatives from the United States National Security Agency (NSA) withdrew a proposal to introduce new global industry standards for data encryption, after encountering prolonged skepticism by experts representing other Western countries. Some observers have interpreted this development as indicative of the damaged relationship between the NSA and its Western counterparts following revelations by American defector Edward Snowden.

Deliberations for establishing new industry standards for data encryption have been taking place for over three years under the supervision of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). The ISO is a worldwide standard-setting body founded in 1947, which brings together representatives from national standards organizations. The US delegation, had proposed the adoption of two new data encryption techniques, known as ‘Simon’ and ‘Speck’. The techniques had the approval of the US national standards organization, which is known as the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) . However, it also had the approval of the NSA, America’s signals intelligence agency, whose representatives were members of the US delegation to the ISO. According to the Reuters news agency, the presence of the NSA representatives in ANSI prompted skepticism among other national delegations.

Eventually, encryption experts from countries including Israel, Japan, Germany, and the United Kingdom, rejected ‘Simon’ and ‘Speck’. The reason, according to Reuters, was that they were “worried that the [NSA] was pushing the new techniques not because they were good encryption tools, but because it knew how to break them”. Some commentators believe that this incident illustrates the suspicion with which the NSA is seen by American allies following headline-grabbing revelations made Edward Snowden, a former employee of the NSA who defected to Russia in 2013. Some of Snowden’s most sensational revelations involved alleged NSA operations targeting Germany, France, Israel, Japan, and other American allies. The revelations shocked public opinion in Europe and elsewhere, and resulted in the unprecedented expulsion of the CIA station chief in Berlin —the most senior US intelligence official in the country. ISO delegates are now thought to be working on a revised plan to keep some of ANSI’s proposed standards but enhance them with stronger layers of encryption, said Reuters.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 September 2017 | Permalink

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Iranian state-backed cyber spies becoming increasingly skilled, says report

Computer hackingA group of cyber spies with close links to the Iranian government is becoming increasingly competent and adept, and could soon bring down entire computer networks, according to a leading cyber security firm. The California-based cyber security company FireEye said that it has been monitoring the operations of the mysterious group of cyber spies since 2013. The company, whose clients include Sony Pictures, JP Morgan Chase and Target, said that the Iranian group appears to be especially interested in gathering secrets from aviation, aerospace and petrochemical companies.

In a detailed report published on Wednesday, FireEye said that the Iranian group has a very narrow target focus. Moreover, it attacks its targets —which are typically companies— in highly customizable ways. The latter includes the use of cleverly designed phishing tools that are designed to attract the attention of the company’s unsuspecting employees. So far, companies that have been targeted include Saudi petrochemical conglomerates, American aviation firms, as well as South Korean and other Southeast Asian companies that have aviation or energy holdings, said FireEye. The security company said it had codenamed the group “APT33”, which stands for “Advanced Persistent Threat #33”. It also said that APT33 was clearly distinct from other known Iranian hacker groups, because of the sophistication of its operations and the quality of its cyber weapons. The cyber security firm said that APT33 was the first Iranian hacker group to be included on a select list of the most capable cyber spy groups from around the world.

Some experts believe that APT33 is run by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, an irregular branch of the Iranian military, which is seen by many as a state within a state in post-1979 Iran. The FireEye report does not appear conclusive on this point. However, it notes that APT33 has built an offensive cyber arsenal “with potential destructive capabilities”, but that it currently appears to focus solely on intelligence collection, not sabotage or warfare.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 21 September 2017 | Permalink

Australia rejected CIA request to open embassy in North Korea

PyongyangAustralia rejected a secret request by the United States Central Intelligence Agency to open an embassy in North Korea, which the Americans hoped to use as a base from where to collect intelligence on the communist state. According to The Australian newspaper, Washington approached the Australian government because it is one of the few pro-Western governments that continue to maintain cordial diplomatic relations with Pyongyang. Up until 1975, Australia was a rare example of a country that hosted embassies of both South Korea and North Korea on its soil. But when Canberra took South Korea’s side in a United Nations vote, the North Koreans objected by shutting down their embassy in Australia. A quarter of a century later, in 2000, Pyongyang reopened its embassy in the Australian capital, only to close it down again in 2008, due to financial constraints.

Throughout that time, Australia has maintained relatively smooth diplomatic relations with North Korea, but has refrained from opening a residential mission in the communist country. Instead, employees of Australia’s embassy in South Korea occasionally travel to the North to perform diplomatic tasks. But in 2014, the US Department of State reached out to Canberra to request that the Australian government consider the possibility of establishing a permanent residential mission in Pyongyang. According to The Australian, the request came from the CIA, which hoped to use the Australian embassy as a base from where to collect intelligence on the isolated country. The US, which lacks an embassy in North Korea, has always found it difficult to collect intelligence there.

The American request was promptly communicated to the then-Prime Minister Tonny Abbott and his Minister of Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop. Both appeared willing to consider Washington’s proposal. But the civil servants of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, who were tasked with putting together a cost-benefit analysis of the request, came back with a negative response. They allegedly contacted their colleagues working in other countries who maintain permanent residential diplomatic missions in Pyongyang. They told them that their consular employees are kept in complete isolation from North Korean society and government. Additionally, they are subjected to constant surveillance by the North Koreans, who are extremely suspicious of all foreign diplomats. Moreover, Canberra was worried that opening an embassy in Pyongyang would inevitably be seen by the North Koreans as an invitation to reopen their embassy in Australia. It would require significant effort and resources to monitor the activities of North Korean diplomats, who are notorious for abusing their diplomatic status by engaging in illicit activities of all kinds.

Eventually, therefore, the US request was rejected by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The latter concluded that Canberra should not proceed with opening a new embassy in Pyongyang, despite the allegedly “strong suggestion” of the CIA. The matter, said The Australian, never reach the cabinet and Washington never brought it up again.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 September 2017 | Permalink

Sons of exposed Russian deep-cover spies want their Canadian citizenship back

FoleyThe sons of a Russian couple, who fraudulently acquired Canadian citizenship before being arrested for espionage in the United States, are seeking to reinstate their Canadian citizenship, which was annulled when their parents were found to be Russian spies. Tim and Alex Vavilov are the sons of Donald Heathfield and Tracey Foley, a married couple arrested in 2010 under Operation GHOST STORIES —a counterintelligence program run by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Following their arrest, their sons, who allegedly grew up thinking their parents were Canadian, were told that their parents were in fact Russian citizens and that their real names were Andrei Bezrukov and Elena Vavilova. Their English-sounding names and Canadian passports had been forged in the late 1980s by the KGB, the Soviet Union’s primary external intelligence agency.

The two boys were at the family’s home in suburban Cambridge, MA, on Sunday, June 27, 2010, when FBI agents conducted coordinated raids across New England, arresting their parents and eight more Russian ‘illegals’. The term is used to signify Russian non-official-cover operatives, namely intelligence officers who operate abroad without diplomatic cover and typically without connection to the country they spy for. It is now believed that Bezrukov and Vavilova were recruited as a couple in the 1980s by the KGB’s Department S, which operated the agency’s ‘illegals’ program.

But the two brothers, who were born in Canada, are currently involved in a prolonged legal battle to have their Canadian citizenship reinstated. The latter was rescinded when it became clear that their parents’ Canadian passports were fraudulent. According to the Canadian Citizenship Act, children born in Canada to “employees of a foreign government” are not entitled to Canadian nationality. But the brothers argue that they were 20 and 16 when their parents were arrested and were unaware of their double identities. It follows, they told Canada’s newsmagazine Maclean’s in August, that they cannot be punished for their parents’ crimes.

This past June, Canada’s Federal Court of Appeal overturned the decision of a lower court and ordered the government to reinstate Alex Vavilov’s Canadian citizenship. Now the government has until September 20 to decide whether to appeal the Federal Court of Appeal’s decision to the Supreme Court. If it does not, or if it upholds the decision of the Federal Court of Appeal, it is thought that Alex’s brother, Tim, will also have his Canadian citizenship reinstated.

But the case may be further-complicated by allegations made by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) that Tim was aware of his parents’ espionage activities when they were arrested by the FBI. The CSIS claims that the two Russian spies had groomed Tim to enter the intelligence profession, and that the then-20-year-old had given an oath of allegiance to the SVR —the KGB’s post-Cold-War successor agency. But Tim Vavilov denies he was groomed or “sworn-in” by the Russians, and argues that he has never been presented with evidence of this allegation, even though his parents’ home in Massachusetts was bugged by the FBI for nearly a decade.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 September 2017 | Permalink

Ex-spy chief jailed as elite power struggle widens in oil-rich Kazakhstan

The Tengiz oil refinery in KazakhstanA former director of Kazakhstan’s feared intelligence agency has been given a lengthy prison sentence, as a ruthless power struggle between rival factions surrounding the country’s president widens. From 2001 to 2006, Nartai Dutbayev directed the Kazakh National Security Committee (KNB), a direct institutional descendant of the Soviet-era KGB. Founded in 1992, the KNB is today directly controlled by Kazakhstan’s authoritarian President, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Many officials serving in senior KNB positions are members of the president’s family, or close friends.

For many years, Dutbayev enjoyed unchallenged power, which was afforded to him by way of his close links to the presidential palace. But in 2006, he resigned from his top KNB post in the aftermath of the murder of popular Kazakh opposition politician Altynbek Sarsenbaev. Ten members of a specialist commando unit within the KNB were found guilty of Sarsenbaev’s murder. He was killed soon after he announced his decision to compete electorally against President Nazarbayev. But Dutbayev was never personally censured by the government. Then, in December of last year, Dutbayev was arrested on charges of “divulging government secrets”. The former spy chief’s trial began in July of this year, but was conducted in its entirety behind closed doors.

This past Monday it was reported that Dutbayev was sentenced to 7 ½ years in prison for espionage on August 24. It is not known why Dutbayev’s sentence was announced to the country’s media more than two weeks after it was formally imposed by the court. Additionally, Kazakh authorities have said nothing about who Dutbayev is believed to have divulged government secrets to, or why. Three alleged accomplices of Dutbayev, including former senior KNB officials Erlan Nurtaev and Nurlan Khasen, were also sentenced to between three and five years in prison for espionage.

Many observers believe that the jailing of the KNB officials is part of a broader power struggle that is currently taking place between rival factions competing to succeed President Nazarbayev. Kazakhstan’s leader has ruled the former Soviet Republic with an iron fist since before its independence from the USSR in 1991. The KNB appears to be a central player in the unfolding power struggle between the country’s governing elites. Almost exactly nine years ago, a Kazakh intelligence officer tried unsuccessfully to abduct another KNB former director, Alnur Musaev, who was living in self-imposed exile in Austria at the time. Many believe that he was acting under Nazarbayev’s direct orders. In 2014, two Kazakh men, believed to be KNB officers, tried unsuccessfully to abduct Viktor Khrapunov, Kazakhstan’s former Minister for Energy and Coal, who also served as mayor of Almati, before leaving Kazakhstan for Switzerland.

Dutbayev is reportedly already in prison. He is believed to be sharing a cell with Serik Akhmetov, Kazakhstan’s former prime minister, who is serving 11 years for alleged corruption.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 September 2017 | Permalink

Alleged Israeli spying device concealed inside fake rock found in Lebanon

Cyprus, Israel, Syria, LebanonA sophisticated spying device disguised as a rock, which was allegedly planted by Israeli intelligence, was found by Lebanese Army troops on a hill located a few miles from the Lebanese-Israeli border. The discovery was reported early on Saturday by several Lebanese news websites, including Al-Mayadeen and Al-Manar, which are closely affiliated with Hezbollah. Al-Manar said that the spy device had been found in the outskirts of Kfarchouba, a predominantly Shiite Lebanese village, located in Arkoub, 100 miles southeast of Lebanon’s capital, Beirut. Kfarchouba’s location is extremely strategic, as the village overlooks northern Israel on the south and the Golan Heights on the east. It has been bombed by Israel several dimes between the 1970s and today, and is remains heavily militarized.

Reports from Lebanon said that a Lebanese Army patrol found the device hidden inside a fake rock, which had been placed on a hill outside Kfarchouba. The device had been placed in direct view of a major Lebanese military outpost, known as Rawisat. As soon as the device was detected, the patrol reportedly called in the Lebanese Army’s intelligence corps for support. Technical experts soon examined the discovery and determined that it contained a sophisticated thermographic camera. Also known as infrared or thermal imaging cameras, thermographic cameras capture images using infrared radiation, instead of using visible light, as is the case with commonly used cameras. This allows them to capture relatively clear images in the darkness, and are thus used for military operations that require night vision. Some Lebanese websites published photographs showing parts of the alleged spy device, which appear to bear writing in Hebrew.

This is not the first time that alleged Israeli spy devices have been found in southern Lebanon. In September of 2014, one person was killed when a mysterious device found near the Lebanese village of Adloun suddenly exploded as Hezbollah troops were examining it. It was later suggested that the device had been attached by Israeli troops to the Hezbollah-owned telecommunications network that spans southern Lebanon. Hezbollah said that the device had been remotely detonated by an Israeli drone in order to prevent it from being reverse-engineered. Two other devices found by a Lebanese Army patrol in the same region in October of 2009 suddenly exploded, as Lebanese security personnel were approaching. A Lebanese Army official said on Sunday that the device found in Kfarchouba will be dismantled by Lebanese Army engineers.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 September 2017 | Permalink

Iraqi Kurds claim they have captured senior Turkish intelligence officers

Cemîl BayikThe Turkish government has refused to comment on reports from Iraq, which suggest that Kurdish forces have captured at least two senior Turkish intelligence officers. News of the arrests first emerged in mid-August, when pro-Kurdish media in Turkey’s Anatolia region claimed that an armed Kurdish group in Iraq had captured two members of the National Intelligence Organization (MİT), Turkey’s principal intelligence agency.

According to the reports, the Turkish intelligence officers had used forged identity papers to travel from eastern Turkey to the northern Iraqi city of Erbil. From there, they went to Sulaimaniyah, a metropolitan center in Iraq’s Kurdish north. Allegedly, the Turkish officers traveled to Iraq in order to assassinate Cemîl Bayik, a co-founder and senior leader of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). Founded in 1978, the PKK is a leftwing secessionist paramilitary organization that seeks an independent homeland for Turkey’s Kurdish minority. Iraq’s Sulaimaniyah region is controlled by another Kurdish armed group, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which has close relations with Iran. But a rival Kurdish group, the Kurdistan Democrat Party (KDP), which is supported by Turkey and opposes the PKK’s secessionist aims, also has a strong presence in the area. It is not known whether KDP forces were aware of —or even assisted— the Turkish intelligence officers in Sulaimaniyah.

Kurdish sources claim that the two Turkish intelligence officers were arrested by PUK forces. Notably, media reports suggest that one of arrestees serves as the MİT’s deputy undersecretary for foreign operations, while the other heads the MİT’s PKK desk. The PUK is now threatening to publish photographs of the two men, which would blow their cover. But there has been no comment on this story from Ankara, where Turkish government officials refuse to confirm or deny that the arrests happened or that the two men are indeed MİT employees. Some observers, however, note that the Turkish government shut down the PUK’s office in the Turkish capital on August 23, and expelled the organization’s representatives. The group has maintained an office in Ankara since 1991, so the Turkish government’s surprising move may signify that the media reports about the arrests of the two MİT officers are indeed accurate.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 September 2017 | Permalink