Russian government cyber spies ‘hid behind Iranian hacker group’

Computer hackingRussian hackers hijacked an Iranian cyber espionage group and used its infrastructure to launch attacks, hoping that their victims would blame Iran, according to British and American intelligence officials. The information, released on Monday, concerns a Russian cyber espionage group termed “Turla” by European cyber security experts.

Turla is believed to operate under the command of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), and has been linked to at least 30 attacks on industry and government facilities since 2017. Since February of 2018, Turla is believed to have successfully carried out cyber espionage operations in 20 different countries. Most of the group’s targets are located in the Middle East, but it has also been connected to cyber espionage operations in the United States and the United Kingdom.

On Monday, officials from Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and America’s National Security Agency (NSA) said Turla had hijacked the attack infrastructure of an Iranian cyber espionage group. The group has been named by cyber security researchers as Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) 34, and is thought to carry out operations under the direction of the Iranian government.

The officials said there was no evidence that APT34 was aware that some of its operations had been taken over by Turla. Instead, Russian hackers stealthily hijacked APT34’s command-and-control systems and used its resources —including computers, servers and malicious codes— to attack targets without APT34’s knowledge. They also accessed the computer systems of APT34’s prior targets. In doing so, Turla hackers masqueraded as APT34 operatives, thus resorting to a practice that is commonly referred to as ‘fourth party collection’, according to British and American officials.

The purpose of Monday’s announcement was to raise awareness about state-sponsored computer hacking among industry and government leaders, said the officials. They also wanted to demonstrate the complexity of cyber attack attribution in today’s computer security landscape. However, “we want to send a clear message that even when cyber actors seek to mask their identity, our capabilities will ultimately identify them”, said Paul Chichester, a senior GCHQ official.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 October 2019 | Permalink

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

US plans to beef up Cyber Command, separate cyberwar operations from NSA

PentagonThe White House will soon announce its decision to strengthen the United States Cyber Command and separate cyber war operations from intelligence functions, according to insider reports. For many decades, the National Security Agency has been in charge of protecting America’s cyber network and combating online threats. But in 2009, the Administration of US President Barack Obama established a brand new Cyber Command, proposing that the online environment represented a new theater of war. Since that time, the US Department of Defense has been campaigning in favor of strengthening the new Cyber Command and completely removing it from the patronage of the NSA –despite the fact that the latter is also a Pentagon agency.

According to media reports, US President Donald Trump has decided to follow the Pentagon’s suggestion. After several months of delay, his administration is now preparing to announce a major reinforcement of the US Cyber Command, and a formal separation between its functions and those of the NSA. According to the American news network PBS, which broke the news on Monday, the idea behind the move is to give the Cyber Command more operational autonomy and to allow it to establish its own mission statement, which will be distinct from that of the NSA. The latter is an intelligence organization, which means that it primarily seeks to exploit adversary networks for purposes of collecting information. Broadly speaking, therefore, the NSA finds operational adversary cyber networks far more useful than destroyed networks. That tends to clash with the goals of the US Cyber Command, whose tactical goals often center on launching destructive attacks on enemy networks. It is believed that the impending change will allow it to do so without the interference of the NSA.

According to PBS, which cited anonymous sources in its report, the details of the separation “are still being worked out”. Furthermore, some observers caution that the Cyber Command will continue to rely on NSA technology and expertise for years to come, until it is able to carry its own weight. There is even less discussion about the view of the NSA on the matter, which some claim is notably negative. However, the move appears to have been decided, and the Cyber Command’s budget will be increased by nearly 20% to $647 million in the coming year, reflecting its elevated role in US defense.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 19 July 2017 | Permalink

German parliament report on NSA spying contains little consensus

Angela MerkelA lengthy parliamentary report on American intelligence activities in Germany was presented last week in Berlin, but was condemned by opposition parties as insufficient and incomplete, prompting calls for a new investigation. The parliamentary probe was initiated in 2013, following a series of revelations by Edward Snowden, a former employee of the United States Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency who defected to Russia. Snowden alleged that both agencies spied on Germany, with the NSA going so far as to eavesdrop on the personal telephone communications of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The allegations shocked German public opinion, and resulted in the unprecedented expulsion of the CIA station chief in Berlin —the most senior US intelligence official in the country. However, the parliamentary probe soon broadened its scope to include subsequent allegations that German intelligence agencies collaborated with the NSA in spying against other Western countries.

Last Wednesday, after three years of work, the parliamentary committee, known officially as the “German Parliamentary Committee Investigating the NSA Spying Scandal”, presented its findings to the Bundestag. They consist of thousands of pages of technical details concerning interception methods and capabilities. However, the final report fails to draw concrete conclusions, and its concluding section does not reflect a consensus among the committee’s members. The section begins by noting that, “unfortunately, despite an initial shared conviction by all parliamentary groups about the need for the investigation, substantial disagreements emerged between the governing and opposition groups, concerning the methodology and goals of the committee’s work”. Read more of this post

New clues emerge about targeted efforts by Russia to hack US elections

GRUNew information about carefully targeted attempts by Russian operatives to compromise the November 2016 presidential elections in the United States have emerged in a newly published intelligence document. The document, which dates from May of this year, was produced by the US National Security Agency and published on June 5 by The Intercept. The web-based outlet published the leaked document on the same day that Reality Leigh Winner, a US federal contractor with a top-security clearance, was charged with espionage for leaking classified documents to the media. This has led to speculation that Winner may be the source of the leak.

The NSA document details attempts by hackers to compromise the online accounts of over 100 election officials, as well as employees of private contractors involved in administering the election process. The attempts reportedly took place during the period leading up to November 8, 2016. To do that, hackers resorted to a technique commonly known as ‘spear-fishing’. They sent carefully crafted emails, claiming to be from Google, to specifically targeted individuals. The goal was to trick the email recipients into downloading and opening Microsoft Word attachments, which were infected with malware. The infected software would then allow the hackers to remotely access the compromised computers. The NSA document states that at least one targeted person had his or her computer compromised though the ‘spear-fishing’ technique. Importantly, the leaked document appears unequivocal in its assessment that the hackers behind the ‘spear-fishing’ attacks worked for the General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) of the Russian armed forces. The document also states that the main goal of the attacks was to compromise the software used to manage voter registration lists, and that the attackers were operating under a “cyber espionage mandate specifically directed at US and foreign elections”.

American intelligence officials have previously said that Russian spies launched in a complex and prolonged campaign to undermine public faith in the US electoral process. It is also known that the Russian campaign targeted election officials in the months leading up to the November 2016 elections. But the NSA report is the first publicly available description of some of the specific techniques employed by the alleged Russian hackers as part of their campaign. The leaked document does not provide technical details about the ‘spear-phishing’ campaign. Nor does it discuss whether the attacks were successful, whether vote tallies were actually compromised, or whether the election process itself was sabotaged by the hackers. The Intercept said it contacted the NSA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, who refused to publicly comment on the content of the NSA report.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 June 2017 | Permalink

Analysis: Contractor charged with espionage presents political minefield for Trump

NSAAt first sight, the case of Reality Leigh Winner, a United States federal contractor who has been charged with leaking classified information to a news outlet, is an open-and-shut case. Winner, an expert linguist with a top-secret clearance, who provided services to the National Security Agency through a private contractor, appears to have admitted to the Federal Bureau of Investigation that she deliberately leaked classified information without permission. She is believed to have told the FBI that she printed and mailed a single document containing classified information to a news outlet on or around May 9 of this year.

WINNER’S MOTIVES

Although it is too early to tell with certainty, Winner does not appear to have acted in search of money or other material benefits, nor does she appear to have operated as an agent of a foreign government. She told her interrogators that she acted solely out of a sense of duty to the American people. However, US law does not typically distinguish between leakers based on their motives. It does, however, distinguish between simple leakers and whistleblowers. If a US government employee uncovers evidence of abuse of power, or becomes aware of a specific and critical threat to the security of Americans, he or she is required to notify his or her superiors. If the latter refuse to take action, then the employee is justified under the law in taking all necessary actions to warn the public of impending peril. That is precisely the function of the 1989 Whistleblower Protection Act, which affords protection to insiders who expose abuses of authority, or a concrete and critical threat to public safety. Read more of this post

North Korea is now robbing banks, says US intelligence official

North KoreaComments made by a senior American intelligence official on Tuesday appeared to suggest that the North Korean government was behind an attempt to steal nearly $1 billion from a Bangladeshi bank last year. The heist took place in February of 2016, when a computer malware was used to issue several requests to transfer funds from Bangladesh Bank —the state-owned central bank of Bangladesh— using the SWIFT network. The hackers were able to transfer five separate sums of $101 million each to a linked Bangladesh Bank account at New York’s Federal Reserve Bank. However, when further requests were issued, Federal Reserve Bank employees contacted Bangladesh Bank and blocked further transactions. Eventually, most of the transferred funds, which neared $1 billion, were recovered; but the hackers managed to get away with approximately $81 million worth of funds.

Forensic investigators described the heist as technically advanced. The antivirus company Symantec said it identified a piece of code in the malware that is known to have been used by North Korean government hackers in the past. Not everyone agreed with the claim that Pyongyang was behind the bank heist. But those who did, said that it was unprecedented in scope and aggressiveness. Some even said that the heist showed that North Korea’s cyber capabilities were among the most sophisticated and powerful in the world.

Meanwhile the United States government did not comment on the matter. However, this past Tuesday the deputy director of the National Security Agency appeared to confirm reports that North Korea was behind the Bangladesh Bank heist. Rick Ledgett, a 30-year veteran of the NSA, who is due to retire in 2018, was speaking at a public event hosted by the Aspen Institute in Washington, DC. He reminded the audience that private researchers had connected the malware code used in the Bangladesh Bank heist with that used in previous hacking attempts launched by North Korea. “If that linkage […] is accurate”, said Ledgett, it “means that a nation state is robbing banks”. When asked by the moderator whether he believes that to be the case, Ledgett responded “I do. And that’s a big deal”. Foreign Policy magazine reached out to Ledgett following his talk and asked him for clarification about his comments regarding the Bangladesh Bank heist. But the NSA official simply said that “the public case [about the heist] was well-made”. Foreign Policy also contacted the NSA, but the agency said it preferred not to comment on the matter.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 23 March 2017 | Permalink