The PrimorisEra Affair: Paradigms In Social Networking and SECOPS
As of last night, I had heard that PrimorisEra was back and posting to a new blog. Today Wired has fired off a follow up to the earlier report and her return. It seems from the report that perhaps the Pentagon investigation is over and that in fact Shawna Gorman may indeed be the First Lady of Missiles. It remains to be seen if this is really the case but since she is back and blogging, I would have to lean toward my assessment from before. Still though, my cautionary statements about social networking and SECOPS still apply.
It started out with a leggy, bikini-clad avatar. She said she was a missile expert — the “1st Lady of Missiles,” in fact — but sometimes suggested she worked with the CIA. With multiple Twitter and Facebook accounts, she earned a following of social media-crazed security wonks. Then came the accusations of using sex appeal for espionage.
Now everyone involved in this weird network is adjusting their story in one way or another, demonstrating that even people in the national security world have trouble remembering one of the basic rules of the internet: Not everyone is who they say they are.
“I think anyone puts pictures out online to lure someone in,” the woman at the center of the controversy insists. “But it’s not to lure men in to give me any information at all… I liked them. They’re pretty. Apparently everyone else thought so too.”
This is a strange, Twitter-borne tale of flirting, cutouts, and lack of online caution in the intelligence and defense worlds. Professionals who should’ve known better casually disclosed their personal details (a big no-no in spook circles) and lobbed allegations they later couldn’t or wouldn’t support (a big no-no in all circles). It led to a Pentagon investigation. And it starts with a Twitter account that no longer exists called @PrimorisEra.
Yesterday, Wired posted a news article about another potential social networking attack on the .mil and .gov types involving Twitter, Facebook, and Google Buzz. The snippet above really sums up what is alleged to have happened and the problems with Social media’s blasé attitudes where people who have jobs that require secrecy meet and chat.
Presently, according to the article, a Pentagon investigation is under way into this story, but once again, this is not the first time we have heard this type of story in the press with these same players. It was last year when a profile online named “Robin Sage” made the rounds on LinkedIn and other social media formats. This “cutout” as they are called in the espionage community, was in fact a fake profile used by a security researcher to prove a point. By using an attractive woman as the persona, the researcher was able to get people within the military and governmental community to add her and flirt. Through the flirting, the unsuspecting connections gave up valuable data on what they did for a living, where they were, and perhaps even locations in country around the battlefield in Afghanistan.
Many just fell for the profile hook line and sinker.. And that is a bad thing for anyone in this sector. It was a lesson in OPSEC and it’s failure. Potentially, this emerging case from the Wired story could also be much the same. The number of online personae that are involved in this story are just a little too many to just think that it was an innocent mistake on the part of a young woman seeking attention online from her peers within the government and military. However, its also just as possible that that is all it really is.
Time will tell.
The thing about this is that this type of exploit is not new at all. This is commonly known as a honeypot in the espionage area and before there was an Internet, there was the local cafe or bar, where one would just happen to meet a lovely young thing and start a relationship. That relationship would then be turned into blackmail (either emotional or literal) and suddenly, you are an asset for the adversary. The new twist is that services need not deploy an asset to a foreign country to search for and find access to those who they want to get information from. Today all they need to have is an Internet connection and Google. It is only even more easily carried out now that there are Social Media sites like Facebook and others to sidle digitally up to anyone you like and start to work on them if you know how.
There used to be a time where every operator was given the tutorials on espionage means and methods. People were forewarned about travelling to other countries and if you are cleared, you have to report suspicious contacts to the DSS. Today though, I don’t think that they have even attempted to try this with online content. I mean, how many reports a day would you have to make to DSS if you are online and just talking to people in a chat room or on Facebook? It would be impossible. So it is understandable, as social animals, that we develop this technology to connect with others and being that it is a rather insular means of communications, feel that we can just let loose with information. After all, how does one really assure that who they are talking to is indeed that person that they claim to be?
So, people forget and really, this is still all relatively new isn’t it? There are no maps here.
Now, back to this story, no one has claimed that data has been leaked. It is only the appearance of things have set off the alarm bells for people and agencies. When one user finally decided to call the alleged cutout’s profile out, a subsequent shit storm began that ended up with @primosera deleting their Twitter, Facebook, and Google accounts thus making the story seem even more suspect.
Was Shawn E Gorman a cutout? Is she really the grad student and contractor she claims to be in her tweets? What about the allusions to the CIA? All of the missile tech and political discussions? Well, given the background of what can be located readily online, there is a Shawn Elizabeth Gorman attending Johns Hopkins as a research assistant getting her MBA in Government, so, perhaps. Or maybe someone has just taken on the persona of Ms. Gorman to use as a cutout for these activities?
Frankly, I am leaning toward it really being her. As you can see from the photos above, I located a photo other than the one from Wired that purports to be Shawn E. Gorman born 1983 to a Nancy Gorman. I also located data that shows a Shawn E. Gorman living in Bethesda MD with the same mother. Given that the photo is an early one, and one of the few out there easily found, I am thinking it is one in the same. However, this does not mean that it has been her behind that keyboard when she was talking to all of the people involved.
Time will tell what is what once the Pentagon’s investigation gets done. It could be that this is all for naught security wise from the compromise perspective. However, this once again is an object lesson for everyone online. Nevermind if you work in a job that requires security, everyone should be cognisant that when they are online talking to someone that they do not know in real life, are just that much more possibly talking to someone who is not their “friend” and looking to just have a chat. From the common data thief to the corporate spy, we all may have data that someone wants and will be willing to pretend a while to get it.
We want to be social and open as we are social animals… Just so happens that sometimes that is a bad idea.
I think though, that everyone who works in security or within a security centric job space will have to go through some more training in the near future. This is just a warning bell and I think it best that the government and military listen to it. Even as the article goes on to mention, there are restrictions on the military about posting online, but still they cannot deny these people access to the likes of Facebook for morale. It is really playing with fire either way, in denying the access it seems draconian and people will fight it. On the other hand, if you allow it and monitor it, you are damned for monitoring people’s interaction online.
Hell, even the CIA has set up its own social networks within the CIA’s Intranet so people can talk and ostensibly share ideas and data. However, that is on an Intranet that is well protected….
Meanwhile, back on the Internet, we have places like LinkedIn. Sounds like a great idea, networking for jobs and such. Then the .gov and .mil folks all got online and began to show themselves and much of their data in a contained space. So much of a treasure trove is LinkedIn that Anna Chapman (as seen above from her Russian Maxim shoot) was only 2 degrees of separation from me within my network on LinkedIn! She was mining the connections as a sleeper for the SVR and all she had to do was put up a pretty picture and say hi.
For me it comes down to this;
1) If you sign up for these places hide as much of your data as you can.
2) Pay attention to the security measures that the sites have in place.. Or don’t. Facebook has had a terrible record on personal privacy but look how many people they have on there and just how much personal data is available to anyone who can look at the page, even a cached version.
3) When you get invites from people check them out. Use other means than the current site (aka LinkedIn) to do that research. See if you can nail down who they are in reality. Even then, once you are friends, think before you type. You may be giving out data that you personally don’t want anyone to have.
4) Placing too much family data on the Internet is a threat. Anything from Identity theft to outright stalking and physical danger can be the outcome if you make it too easy for someone to get your data.
5) If you suspect that someone you are talking to is not indeed who you think they are, walk away.
6) AND for God’s sake, if you are a guy, in the military or government, or hold a classified status and some hot avatar’d chick starts PM’ing you, its either a bot or it’s likely another cutout. ESPECIALLY if you lay out your life’s story online as to what you do and where you work.
7) Finally, remember what I have repeated over and over again. Whoever you are talking to MAY NOT BE WHO THEY SAY THEY ARE!
Just don’t put that data out there and end up in the hot seat with your job on the line over a little virtual tail.