Krypt3ia

(Greek: κρυπτεία / krupteía, from κρυπτός / kruptós, “hidden, secret things”)

Archive for the ‘Sleepers’ Category

The PrimorisEra Affair: Paradigms In Social Networking and SECOPS

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EDIT 5.24.2011

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.

See below:

K.

From Wired:

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.

Shawn Elizabeth Gorman Daughter of Nancy Gorman 1983

Site with SEG photo (1983)

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.

K.

Russian Kulturny: Espionage Old School Meets the New Tech Comrade

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But many things shown even in bad movies are unfortunately true: Yes, the Russians like to wear fur hats, drink vodka, eat caviar, take pretty girls to the sauna. And, apart from some modern innovations like ad hoc networks, burst transmissions and steganography, the old proven tradecraft is pretty much the same. It is good and it normally works well (except in cases, when somebody is already being shadowed – then nothing works).

Boris Volodarsky: Former GRU Officer

Los Illegals.. Comrade…

With all of the hubub over the capture of the illegals, and of course all the rattling on about the “swallow” known as Anna Chapman, one has to cut through the dross to get to the real importance of the story. The fact is, that though the wall has fallen (long ago) and W looked into the “soul” of ol’ Pooty Poot and saw teddy bears and rainbows, the reality of it is that the “Bear” never went away or to sleep.

We are still a target, a rather rich one still, for collection of intelligence as well as corporate IP as Putin has pointed out in statements he has made over the years. It was Putin who actually said that Russia needed to step up its game in industrial espionage (I am paraphrasing) and created the means to do so within the new FSB *cough* KGB. This type of infiltration in hopes of collection never went away and I suspect that even with out own dismantling of the HUMINT departments of CIA, we still had a reasonable amount of assets and agents within Russia as they transitioned from the Sov bloc to today’s powerhouse of malware and Russian Mafia run state apparatus.

So, while reading all the news sites, it became clear to me that people really do not have a grasp of the realities surrounding the nature of espionage today. Everyone thinks that its all shiny technologies and protocols within the hacker scene that the next gen of spies are using and that old school techniques called “tradecraft” are outdated and useless.

Nope… It’s not just that. This is said rather well here by Boris again:

The public and writers alike do not really realise that this is NOT a film — a very large group of very experienced FBI agents and watchers spent a very considerable sum of taxpayers’ money and plenty of time to uncover a REAL group of the Russian undercover operators who brazenly operated in the United States, as they had been absolutely sure that no one would ever catch them because their education, training, intelligence tradition, and the belief that the wealth of the country behind them is much superior than the FBI. They forgot that the FBI of 2010 is much different from the Bureau of the 1950s.

It is highly likely that these agents were outed by a defector back in the 90’s. The defector was a Directorate S operative who worked within the UN in the NYC area and it is possible that he gave up the program. The FBI then was tasked with either finding them all blindly, or, they had at least one couple in their sites and steadily built their case by watching the illegals to get at their handlers. You see, the same logic applies to the FBI as does the perception of the KGB. The FBI is seen as slow witted and usually in the media, the blue sedan with guys in suits and sunglasses inside watching you ever so not subtly.

This is not necessarily the case as has been seen in some areas of the FBI’s counterintelligence unit. They really can do a good job at surveillance and counterintel collection.. They are not as bumpkin as they used to be in the 50’s… Nor the 80’s for that matter. Unfortunately though, it really took the Hanssen’s of the world to force them to be better.. But I digress..

Why Were They Here?

I think that there has been a basic misunderstanding in the press and the populace from reading poor press reports on the nature of the “illegals” program. Yes, they were tasked at times with getting data that could be readily available through open source (OSINT) channels such as the news or Google. However, their main task was to insert themselves into our culture, economy, and social strata in order to get “at” people of interest. Basically they were talent spotters.

These people got on to Linkedin and other social networks for the exact reason of making friends and gaining access to those who might be “of use” later on for their handlers and masters. They were facilitators really. You see, like the whole Robin Sage affair that is ongoing now, these folks already knew about the vulnerabilities within social networking and the social nature of human beings from the start. They were trained on this by the SVR and its not something that common people tend to think about. This is where the hacker world and the spy world meet (well they meet in many other places too but go with it for now) The hackers take advantage of the same flaws in our “systems” (cognitive as well as technical) to get what they want.

In this case, these illegals actually did gain some traction and some had access to potential sources that I think, had yet to be plumbed. Perhaps they were getting close to someone and this is what tripped the arrest cycle. Perhaps there are other more arcane reasons for that… As you may be seeing now that there is a prisoner swap with Russia in the works. Once again I direct you to Boris’ comments on their aegis:

What Russian intelligence in striving to get is secret information (political, economic, industrial, military, etc) and have a chance to influence decision-making and public opinion in favor of Russia. This is why agents are recruited or penetrated into sensitive or politically important targets.

The role of illegals is threefold:

  1. to act as cut-outs between important sources and the Centre (directly or via the SVR station);
  2. to serve as talent-spotters finding potential candidates for further intelligence cultivation and possible recruitment (a rather long and complex process, where the illegals only act at its early stage); and
  3. to establish the right contacts that would allow other intelligence operators (members of the SVR station) or the Centre (visiting intelligence officers under different covers, journalists, diplomats or scientists tasked by the SVR) to get intelligence information and/or receive favors that the Centre is interested in.

These illegals are really, like I said, facilitators for the real spies that are sent to our shores.They were practiced in the old school tradecraft of spying and were they not already under surveillance, they may not have been noticed at all by our counterintelligence services. Which brings me to another issue with all the reporting on this espionage round up.

Tradecraft VS High Tech Espionage:

As mentioned by Boris, the tradecraft angle is not only history for the SVR, KGB, or the GRU. Much as I believe that it is still in play for ALL of the intelligence services throughout the world. These practices are tired and true. They have been used to great effect by all spies and only are really heard about in books, film, or news stories like the ones today when the spies were busted.

Since the days of 007 on the screen, we have seen the Q branch and all their toys as a high profile part of “spying” when in reality there is some of that (see H. Kieth Melton’s books) but mostly, it has been the old school that has won the day for spies. The use of things like a Shortwave radio and a “One Time Pad” are still used today because they cannot easily be broken. The use of rapid burst radio transmissions too was a bit of a shock to me in the current case, but once I thought about it, the use of a rapid burst to a local “rezidentura” makes a lot of sense given the amount of RF we have placed into our landscape today. It would easily be lost in the noise and thus, a good way to go about secret communications.

Meanwhile, the use of “Brush Passes” “Chalking”, “Pass Phrases” and other old school techniques for communicating and passing intelligence never have lost their usefulness. Just because one can create an email dead drop on Gmail today pretty easily, does not infer that it is at all safer than meeting someone on the park bench, or leaving a postal stamp on a kiosk as a marker that “somethings up” These things hide within the static of every day life and often, because of “situational awareness” levels, go totally un-noticed. The other means via the “technology” of today’s internet is more circumspect because of so many factors. One of the primary of those being the hacking and cyberwar issues that are ongoing.

Even today, the news is full of “Perfect Citizen” an uber protection plan and technology that the NSA wants to use to protect the national infrastructure. How will it do this? By monitoring ALL of the traffic that it can and look for anomalous behavior. As the technology becomes more prevalent so too are the chances of your secret communications being discovered. It made sense that given the NSA’s power, the illegals and the SVR decided that old school was still the best bet. It was however, that the more technical approaches (i.e. netbooks, crypto, and adhoc networks) failed them, only proving my hypothesis above.

As an aside to LizzieB, the old bury the money under or near the bottle thing.. It still does work *heh*

The Final Analysis:

Much has yet to be told about these illegals as well as the reasons why this group was busted 10 years later. Why now? Why this sudden trade for spies? What tipped the FBI off to these spies in the first place? Was it indeed the defector I spoke of? We may never know. What we can deduce though, is this:

  • Spies never went away
  • Spies aren’t just stealing IP from corporations
  • Hey you, you with the access to the important people… You are a target
  • Technology does not always win the day, sometimes it is the weakest link
  • We have not seen the last of the SVR, KGB, Mossad, MI5 etc etc…
  • Russian spies do like their Vodka and sauna’s but they aren’t all Boris and Natasha caricatures

A full text of the cited Boris interview can be found HERE

CoB