Insider Threats: “The Shadow Brokers” Likely Did Not Hack the NSA
UPDATED 12/20/2016 3:45 PM ET
• Based on the data released in the most recent dump by the threat actor known as “The Shadow Brokers,” Flashpoint assesses with medium confidence that the stolen information was likely obtained from a rogue insider. Flashpoint is uncertain of how these documents were exfiltrated, but they appear to have been copied from an internal system or code repository and not directly accessed through external remote access or discovered on any external staging server.
• The tools offered for sale in the dump contain documentation scripts from 2005-2013, centered around Linux and Unix-based Computer Network Exploitation (CNE) operations.
• The Shadow Brokers modified the data and timestamps in an attempt to hinder analysis by security researchers. Flashpoint assesses with moderate confidence that the stolen documents were likely obtained in July 2013, but it is unclear why the exploits only became available for sale in 2016.
• Technical analysis of the available files calls into question the true motivation of The Shadow Brokers. If The Shadow Brokers were trying to make a profit, the exploits would have been offered shortly after July 2013, when the information would have been most valuable.
The threat actor known as “The Shadow Brokers,” which is currently offering NSA exploits for sale, may have inadvertently revealed the type of access the actor had, as well as the efforts it made to point analysts in the wrong direction. The actor’s latest release, for sale on ZeroNet, points towards an insider with access to a code repository, as opposed to poor operational security by NSA network operators who left exploits on a staging server.
On December 14, 2016, a Medium post titled “Are the Shadow Brokers selling NSA tools on ZeroNet?” was published by an actor using the alias “Boceffus Cleetus.” Boceffus Cleetus is a new alias, which did not exist prior to December 2016. In the post, Boceffus Cleetus claimed that the actor is trying to sell more NSA tools, with the entire dump offered for 1,000 Bitcoin (approximately $800,000 USD). Many of the tools are being sold individually for between 10 to 100 Bitcoin (approximately $8,000 – $80,000 USD). Boceffus Cleetus also theorizes that the leaks are connected to inter-agency conflicts between the CIA and the NSA. Flashpoint is unable to confirm these claims, but the information does appear to derive from a source with direct access to the exploit repository.
Based on Flashpoint’s analysis of the recent data release, Flashpoint assesses with medium confidence that the stolen information was likely obtained from a rogue insider. Flashpoint is uncertain of how these documents were exfiltrated, but they appear to have been copied from an internal system or code repository and not directly accessed through external remote access or discovered on any external staging server.
In the auction_file folder released in the dump, The Shadow Brokers provided screenshots as proof that the data is authentic. A screenshot within the folder revealed that all the dates had been modified within seconds of one another. Based on the folder icons, the screenshots were taken inside a Linux system; the attacker may have taken the screenshots in a clean Virtual Machine (VM) for protection purposes. In Image 1, it is apparent that the attacker has the technical ability to modify timestamps in Linux, which can be accomplished with the “touch -d” command.
The Shadow Brokers included extra files in the listing as proof of the authenticity of the data. Several text files are listed, which contain a file listing and the file sizes of the data.
Analysis of the files reveals that these are instructions on how to use many of the tools offered for sale in the release.
Flashpoint analysis of the files reveals the likely timeframe of the stolen data to be mid-2013. In Image 4, ELATEDMONKEY is a local privilege escalation exploit for cPanel, with one of the versions being 11.24.4. According to the cPanel website, this version was published December 16, 2008.
The file user[.]tool[.]englandbogy[.]COMMON follows a specific format, targeting the Xorg server. The documentation mentions a 2006 version of Mandrake, which may reveal further information about the data. Xorg 6.9 was released at the end of 2005.
Further analysis of the files reveals recommendations on clearing logs and pivoting to networks, as well as certain actions which would leave tracks. In much of the documentation, the attackers give “how-to” tips on exploiting networks, allowing for easy copying and pasting of instructions. In Image 6, “mx” can be used in vi as a marker to jump back to this section. With the way the documentation is written, the commands are meant to be copied and pasted from one window to another.
Images 3, 4, and 5 each have a certain format, suggesting an internal documentation template used for much of these attacks. In some of the files, there are dates appended to the top, dating back to the 2011 timeframe. In Image 7, one of the files appears to be modified differently than the other files.
In the file “stoicversions[.]levels,” different files are listed by dates. The most recent date found in the dump is July 16, 2013, which may indicate the most recent access time of the dump.
In this dump, much of the released data ties back to Linux-based tools, techniques, and procedures. Based on the the amount of information provided as well as implants only targeting Linux and UNIX systems, The Shadow Brokers more than likely obtained the stolen information through a rogue insider; the documents appear to have been copied from an internal system or code repository and not directly accessed through external remote access or discovered on any external staging server.
Insiders with access to sensitive information can cause extensive damage, as Edward Snowden proved in June 2013. While the timeline of events shows that this is not directly related to Snowden, the close proximity of events raises the question if there were multiple insiders acting independently during 2013. Technical analysis of the available files calls into question the true motivation of The Shadow Brokers. If The Shadow Brokers were trying to make a profit, the exploits would have been offered shortly after July 2013, when the information would have been most valuable.