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Paul Merrell

He Was a Hacker for the NSA and He Was Willing to Talk. I Was Willing to Listen. - 2 views

  • he message arrived at night and consisted of three words: “Good evening sir!” The sender was a hacker who had written a series of provocative memos at the National Security Agency. His secret memos had explained — with an earthy use of slang and emojis that was unusual for an operative of the largest eavesdropping organization in the world — how the NSA breaks into the digital accounts of people who manage computer networks, and how it tries to unmask people who use Tor to browse the web anonymously. Outlining some of the NSA’s most sensitive activities, the memos were leaked by Edward Snowden, and I had written about a few of them for The Intercept. There is no Miss Manners for exchanging pleasantries with a man the government has trained to be the digital equivalent of a Navy SEAL. Though I had initiated the contact, I was wary of how he might respond. The hacker had publicly expressed a visceral dislike for Snowden and had accused The Intercept of jeopardizing lives by publishing classified information. One of his memos outlined the ways the NSA reroutes (or “shapes”) the internet traffic of entire countries, and another memo was titled “I Hunt Sysadmins.” I felt sure he could hack anyone’s computer, including mine. Good evening sir!
  • The sender was a hacker who had written a series of provocative memos at the National Security Agency. His secret memos had explained — with an earthy use of slang and emojis that was unusual for an operative of the largest eavesdropping organization in the world — how the NSA breaks into the digital accounts of people who manage computer networks, and how it tries to unmask people who use Tor to browse the web anonymously. Outlining some of the NSA’s most sensitive activities, the memos were leaked by Edward Snowden, and I had written about a few of them for The Intercept. There is no Miss Manners for exchanging pleasantries with a man the government has trained to be the digital equivalent of a Navy SEAL. Though I had initiated the contact, I was wary of how he might respond. The hacker had publicly expressed a visceral dislike for Snowden and had accused The Intercept of jeopardizing lives by publishing classified information. One of his memos outlined the ways the NSA reroutes (or “shapes”) the internet traffic of entire countries, and another memo was titled “I Hunt Sysadmins.” I felt sure he could hack anyone’s computer, including mine.
  • I got lucky with the hacker, because he recently left the agency for the cybersecurity industry; it would be his choice to talk, not the NSA’s. Fortunately, speaking out is his second nature.
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  • He agreed to a video chat that turned into a three-hour discussion sprawling from the ethics of surveillance to the downsides of home improvements and the difficulty of securing your laptop.
  • In recent years, two developments have helped make hacking for the government a lot more attractive than hacking for yourself. First, the Department of Justice has cracked down on freelance hacking, whether it be altruistic or malignant. If the DOJ doesn’t like the way you hack, you are going to jail. Meanwhile, hackers have been warmly invited to deploy their transgressive impulses in service to the homeland, because the NSA and other federal agencies have turned themselves into licensed hives of breaking into other people’s computers. For many, it’s a techno sandbox of irresistible delights, according to Gabriella Coleman, a professor at McGill University who studies hackers. “The NSA is a very exciting place for hackers because you have unlimited resources, you have some of the best talent in the world, whether it’s cryptographers or mathematicians or hackers,” she said. “It is just too intellectually exciting not to go there.”
  • “If I turn the tables on you,” I asked the Lamb, “and say, OK, you’re a target for all kinds of people for all kinds of reasons. How do you feel about being a target and that kind of justification being used to justify getting all of your credentials and the keys to your kingdom?” The Lamb smiled. “There is no real safe, sacred ground on the internet,” he replied. “Whatever you do on the internet is an attack surface of some sort and is just something that you live with. Any time that I do something on the internet, yeah, that is on the back of my mind. Anyone from a script kiddie to some random hacker to some other foreign intelligence service, each with their different capabilities — what could they be doing to me?”
  • The Lamb’s memos on cool ways to hunt sysadmins triggered a strong reaction when I wrote about them in 2014 with my colleague Ryan Gallagher. The memos explained how the NSA tracks down the email and Facebook accounts of systems administrators who oversee computer networks. After plundering their accounts, the NSA can impersonate the admins to get into their computer networks and pilfer the data flowing through them. As the Lamb wrote, “sys admins generally are not my end target. My end target is the extremist/terrorist or government official that happens to be using the network … who better to target than the person that already has the ‘keys to the kingdom’?” Another of his NSA memos, “Network Shaping 101,” used Yemen as a theoretical case study for secretly redirecting the entirety of a country’s internet traffic to NSA servers.
  • “You know, the situation is what it is,” he said. “There are protocols that were designed years ago before anybody had any care about security, because when they were developed, nobody was foreseeing that they would be taken advantage of. … A lot of people on the internet seem to approach the problem [with the attitude of] ‘I’m just going to walk naked outside of my house and hope that nobody looks at me.’ From a security perspective, is that a good way to go about thinking? No, horrible … There are good ways to be more secure on the internet. But do most people use Tor? No. Do most people use Signal? No. Do most people use insecure things that most people can hack? Yes. Is that a bash against the intelligence community that people use stuff that’s easily exploitable? That’s a hard argument for me to make.”
  • I mentioned that lots of people, including Snowden, are now working on the problem of how to make the internet more secure, yet he seemed to do the opposite at the NSA by trying to find ways to track and identify people who use Tor and other anonymizers. Would he consider working on the other side of things? He wouldn’t rule it out, he said, but dismally suggested the game was over as far as having a liberating and safe internet, because our laptops and smartphones will betray us no matter what we do with them. “There’s the old adage that the only secure computer is one that is turned off, buried in a box ten feet underground, and never turned on,” he said. “From a user perspective, someone trying to find holes by day and then just live on the internet by night, there’s the expectation [that] if somebody wants to have access to your computer bad enough, they’re going to get it. Whether that’s an intelligence agency or a cybercrimes syndicate, whoever that is, it’s probably going to happen.”
  • There are precautions one can take, and I did that with the Lamb. When we had our video chat, I used a computer that had been wiped clean of everything except its operating system and essential applications. Afterward, it was wiped clean again. My concern was that the Lamb might use the session to obtain data from or about the computer I was using; there are a lot of things he might have tried, if he was in a scheming mood. At the end of our three hours together, I mentioned to him that I had taken these precautions—and he approved. “That’s fair,” he said. “I’m glad you have that appreciation. … From a perspective of a journalist who has access to classified information, it would be remiss to think you’re not a target of foreign intelligence services.” He was telling me the U.S. government should be the least of my worries. He was trying to help me. Documents published with this article: Tracking Targets Through Proxies & Anonymizers Network Shaping 101 Shaping Diagram I Hunt Sys Admins (first published in 2014)
Paul Merrell

Internet Giants Erect Barriers to Spy Agencies - NYTimes.com - 0 views

  • As fast as it can, Google is sealing up cracks in its systems that Edward J. Snowden revealed the N.S.A. had brilliantly exploited. It is encrypting more data as it moves among its servers and helping customers encode their own emails. Facebook, Microsoft and Yahoo are taking similar steps.
  • After years of cooperating with the government, the immediate goal now is to thwart Washington — as well as Beijing and Moscow. The strategy is also intended to preserve business overseas in places like Brazil and Germany that have threatened to entrust data only to local providers. Google, for example, is laying its own fiber optic cable under the world’s oceans, a project that began as an effort to cut costs and extend its influence, but now has an added purpose: to assure that the company will have more control over the movement of its customer data.
  • A year after Mr. Snowden’s revelations, the era of quiet cooperation is over. Telecommunications companies say they are denying requests to volunteer data not covered by existing law. A.T.&T., Verizon and others say that compared with a year ago, they are far more reluctant to cooperate with the United States government in “gray areas” where there is no explicit requirement for a legal warrant.
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  • Eric Grosse, Google’s security chief, suggested in an interview that the N.S.A.'s own behavior invited the new arms race.“I am willing to help on the purely defensive side of things,” he said, referring to Washington’s efforts to enlist Silicon Valley in cybersecurity efforts. “But signals intercept is totally off the table,” he said, referring to national intelligence gathering.“No hard feelings, but my job is to make their job hard,” he added.
  • In Washington, officials acknowledge that covert programs are now far harder to execute because American technology companies, fearful of losing international business, are hardening their networks and saying no to requests for the kind of help they once quietly provided.Continue reading the main story Robert S. Litt, the general counsel of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees all 17 American spy agencies, said on Wednesday that it was “an unquestionable loss for our nation that companies are losing the willingness to cooperate legally and voluntarily” with American spy agencies.
  • Many point to an episode in 2012, when Russian security researchers uncovered a state espionage tool, Flame, on Iranian computers. Flame, like the Stuxnet worm, is believed to have been produced at least in part by American intelligence agencies. It was created by exploiting a previously unknown flaw in Microsoft’s operating systems. Companies argue that others could have later taken advantage of this defect.Worried that such an episode undercuts confidence in its wares, Microsoft is now fully encrypting all its products, including Hotmail and Outlook.com, by the end of this year with 2,048-bit encryption, a stronger protection that would take a government far longer to crack. The software is protected by encryption both when it is in data centers and when data is being sent over the Internet, said Bradford L. Smith, the company’s general counsel.
  • Mr. Smith also said the company was setting up “transparency centers” abroad so that technical experts of foreign governments could come in and inspect Microsoft’s proprietary source code. That will allow foreign governments to check to make sure there are no “back doors” that would permit snooping by United States intelligence agencies. The first such center is being set up in Brussels.Microsoft has also pushed back harder in court. In a Seattle case, the government issued a “national security letter” to compel Microsoft to turn over data about a customer, along with a gag order to prevent Microsoft from telling the customer it had been compelled to provide its communications to government officials. Microsoft challenged the gag order as violating the First Amendment. The government backed down.
  • Hardware firms like Cisco, which makes routers and switches, have found their products a frequent subject of Mr. Snowden’s disclosures, and their business has declined steadily in places like Asia, Brazil and Europe over the last year. The company is still struggling to convince foreign customers that their networks are safe from hackers — and free of “back doors” installed by the N.S.A. The frustration, companies here say, is that it is nearly impossible to prove that their systems are N.S.A.-proof.
  • In one slide from the disclosures, N.S.A. analysts pointed to a sweet spot inside Google’s data centers, where they could catch traffic in unencrypted form. Next to a quickly drawn smiley face, an N.S.A. analyst, referring to an acronym for a common layer of protection, had noted, “SSL added and removed here!”
  • Facebook and Yahoo have also been encrypting traffic among their internal servers. And Facebook, Google and Microsoft have been moving to more strongly encrypt consumer traffic with so-called Perfect Forward Secrecy, specifically devised to make it more labor intensive for the N.S.A. or anyone to read stored encrypted communications.One of the biggest indirect consequences from the Snowden revelations, technology executives say, has been the surge in demands from foreign governments that saw what kind of access to user information the N.S.A. received — voluntarily or surreptitiously. Now they want the same.
  • The latest move in the war between intelligence agencies and technology companies arrived this week, in the form of a new Google encryption tool. The company released a user-friendly, email encryption method to replace the clunky and often mistake-prone encryption schemes the N.S.A. has readily exploited.But the best part of the tool was buried in Google’s code, which included a jab at the N.S.A.'s smiley-face slide. The code included the phrase: “ssl-added-and-removed-here-; - )”
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