The NSA Hack: Who Did It and Why?

  • Breach ‘severely increases’ private sector risk, analyst says
  • Suspects include Russia, China and even NSA insiders

When Edward Snowden disclosed surveillance secrets from the U.S. National Security Agency in 2013, it was a clear case of whodunit, a mystery that was solved when the former NSA contractor gave an interview to The Guardian newspaper from his Hong Kong hotel room. This week’s leak of high-tech hacking tools, however, is less straight forward.

On Saturday, a group with the moniker ShadowBrokers posted two encrypted dossiers on online file-sharing sites. One contained about 300 megabytes of tools and techniques to infiltrate computer systems’ firewalls, with the files dating to late 2013, according to Kaspersky Lab, a software security firm. The contents are open for the taking. The second trove, though, remains locked with the password up for auction.

In a post Tuesday, Kaspersky said that several hundred tools from the leak "share a strong connection" with what it calls the Equation Group, a hacking entity it’s been tracking that other analysts have said is the NSA. The NSA isn’t talking.

Cybersecurity analysts are still poring over the material, which raised questions about whether the leak poses a threat to national security or was just a warning from U.S. adversaries. Meanwhile, on the day of the leak, much of the NSA’s public website was down. 

For now, here’s what people are asking:

Who’s behind it?

The “suspect list” of actors who could likely get this kind of data as well as publicize it points to Russia and China, according to Nicholas Weaver, a senior researcher at the International Computer Science Institute at University of California at Berkeley. Both nations have repeatedly denied hacking accusations.

But it is also possible that an NSA worker left behind a toolkit in a server the agency hacked into - and did a sloppy job covering his or her tracks, according to Jason Healey, a senior cyber research scholar at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Or, more nefariously, an insider could have used removable media, such as a USB drive, to take the content from the NSA and disclose it.

Lance James, chief scientist at cybersecurity firm Flashpoint, said an internet protocol address found in one of the leaked files pointed to a Defense Department-owned "non-routable IP address space," which he said suggests the material came from a testing server rather than an operational one.

"That to me is a red flag," James said via e-mail. "This could indicate this was not stolen from outside the network but within and could have been taken from a source code repository where this software resided before it was launched."

Is it a big deal?

The short answer: probably. The leak contains scripts and means to "attack, disable, alter and bypass firewalls from vendors" such as Cisco Systems Inc., Fortinet Inc. and Juniper Networks Inc., according to Justin Harvey, chief security officer at Fidelis Cybersecurity.

Because time-stamps on the files date to 2013, some of the software weaknesses could have since been fixed. In a statement Wednesday, Cisco said it investigated the information from the breach and found exploits of two Cisco product vulnerabilities, one of which is a newly discovered defect. The company says it’s patching those gaps.

Yet the leak does provide new ideas and concepts that hackers could build on.

"You’re releasing these very advanced tools in the wild," said Bob Stasio, a fellow at the Truman National Security Project and former chief of operations at the NSA’s Cyber Operations Center, who likened it to a new weapons arsenal at hackers’ fingertips. "What this does is actually severely increases the risk to the U.S. private sector, especially for financial institutions" that are less prepared than the government to respond to such threats, he said in an interview.

Why did they do it?

"The message is: ‘Hey, NSA we hacked you and we want the world to know," Weaver said. "We can damage you further because we have all this other information and you don’t even know what it is."

In a series of tweets Tuesday, Snowden echoed that idea, saying, "This leak is likely a warning that someone can prove U.S. responsibility for any attacks that originated from this malware server." Snowden also backed the idea that Russia, where he resides in exile, could be behind the hack.

Snowden -- who some analysts speculated could have done the hack himself -- even joked that his disclosures in 2013 helped the NSA by prompting them to shift operations to new servers, which would have cut off the hackers’ access. At the end of a long series of Twitter posts on the issue, he ended by saying "You’re welcome @NSAGov. Lots of love.”

What’s next?

The NSA will likely be doing a “thorough examination” to see if there are any remnants of the code revealed in the leak in their current operations, and if so, they’ll stop using it, Paulo Shakarian, chief executive officer of IntelliSpyre Inc. and director of the Cyber-Socio Intelligent Systems Laboratory at Arizona State University in Tempe.

Cyber analysts will also watch for any malware from the auctioned files and if those tools end up on sale on the dark web. They’ll also monitor whether the group releases additional material from the NSA.

“They said there is more stuff coming," Shakarian said.

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