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Russian Election Meddling, GRIZZLYSTEPPE, and Bananas

August 17, 2017

It’s been awhile since I’ve been able to post to my blog (as it turns out doing a Series A raise for my company Dragos has been time consuming so I apologize for the absence in writing).  But it is fitting that my first blog post in awhile has something to do with the GRIZZLYSTEPPE report. I almost got sucked back into writing when I saw the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) tweet out the Norse cyber attack map.

Matt jumped on it pretty quickly though which was great.

I tried to attempt to fill the person in running the account just in case they didn’t understand why folks were less than excited about their presentation.

But in their responses to me it seemed they didn’t fully understand. They articulated that they use unclassified data for the conference but use classified data at work. Of course the problem wasn’t the data (even though it’s not just unclassified but completely bad/fake data) it’s the idea that a cyber attack map aka “pew pew map” is not a good way to communicate to any audience as its simply a marketing ploy. However, it’s not worth a full blog post so I’ll just instead request everyone to do their homework (should only be a quick Google search) on why pew pew maps are stupid and everyone serious in the discussion should stop using them.

On To the Main Discussion

But on to the main topic. What does Russian election meddling, the GRIZZLYSTEPPE report, and bananas all have in common? Absolutely nothing. Each are individually completely unrelated to each other and people should stop putting any of them together as it ultimately just makes people look silly (to be fair no one’s associated bananas with the election interference yet but it might be a better correlation than the GRIZZLYSTEPPE report).

This discussion was all spawned by an article that the New York Times released on August 16th, 2017 titled “In Ukraine, a Malware Expert Who Could Blow the Whistle on Russian Hacking“. Spoiler alert: he can’t. I went on a bit of a Twitter rant to explain why the article wasn’t good, it can be found here, but I felt it was a complex and an important enough topic to cover in a blog.

The NYT piece posits that a hacker known by his alias “Profexer” was responsible for writing the P.A.S. tool and is now a witness for the FBI after coming forward to Ukrainian police. The P.A.S. tool, the article puts forward, was leveraged by Russia’s intelligence services without his knowledge (not sure how he can be a “witness” then but I digress). The authors of the article previously explicitly stated P.A.S. was used in the break-in of the Democratic National Committee  (DNC) but they had to issue a correction to that (to their credit, folks from NYT reached out to me after I critiqued it on Twitter to try to get the story correct after it was published; I asked for the correction as I’m sure others did but in reading the updated article the correction doesn’t actually address the larger issues so I wanted to cover them here in the blog).


Figure 1: Correction Related to P.A.S. and the DNC

Where did they get this assertion that P.A.S. was used in the DNC breach? By tying the GRIZZLYSTEPPE report (which does note that P.A.S. has been used by Russian security service members before) to the DNC breach. The GRIZZLYSTEPPE report has nothing to do with the DNC breach though and was a collection of technical indicators the government compiled from multiple agencies all working different Russian related threat groups. The threat group that compromised the DNC was Russian but not all Russian groups broke into the DNC. The GRIZZLYSTEPPE report was also highly criticized for its lack of accuracy and lack of a clear message and purpose. I covered it here on my blog but that was also picked up by numerous journalists and covered elsewhere. In other words, there’s no excuse for not knowing how widely criticized the GRIZZLYSTEPPE report was before citing it as good evidence in a NYT piece. Interestingly, the journalists didn’t even link to the “Enhanced Analysis” version of the GRIZZLYSTEPPE report which was published afterwards (and is actually much better) as a response to the critiques of the first one.

A major issue exists though with the correction to the NYT article. It changes the entire point of the story. If Profexer isn’t actually a “witness” to the case because P.A.S. wasn’t used in DNC then what’s the message the journalists are trying to get across? Someone who wasn’t working with the Russians, developed a tool that the Russians didn’t use in the DNC case, and didn’t have any insight into any of the Russian threat groups or campaigns cannot be a good witness.

Even after the correction though the journalists draw the readers attention to the breach early and often to continue to reinforce that this gives new insight into that case.

Figure 2: Snippet from NYT Article Referencing DNC Breach and Profexer

And again the journalists explicitly state that Profexer is somehow a witness to what occurred and reference him back again to the election hacking.

Figure 3: Snippet from NYT Article Claiming Profexer is a Witness

The article goes on to note how this changes our thoughts on the Russian groups (APT28 / APT29 or COZYBEAR / FANCYBEAR) and how they operate; the journalists state that using publicly available tools or outsourcing tool development to cyber criminals is against the modus operandi (MO) of the Russian security services. I do not know where the journalists get this claim but they do not source it; I disagree with the claim but I’ll note the burden of proof here is on them with regards to showing where they’re claiming the previous MO and I’ll simply state that there have been numerous publications and reports showcasing Russian threat groups including the security services using other groups and people’s tools and exploits. This isn’t new information and it’s fairly common for many threat groups to operate in this way.

The attribution on APT28 and APT29 is some of the most solid attribution the community has ever done. Numerous cybersecurity firms have covered this group including FireEye, CrowdStrike, Kaspersky, TrendMicro, and F-Secure but we’ve also had government attribution before by the German intelligence services on a breach into their government that pre-dates the DNC breach. A cursory look will reveal that organizations have been tracking this Russian threat group for about a decade now. Yet none of the people who’ve actually covered these groups were cited in the NYT article. Instead the journalists chose to cite Jeffrey Carr and his quote is confusing to most readers because he is trying to detract from the attribution where he states: “there is not now and never has been a single piece of technical evidence produced that connects the malware used in the D.N.C. attack to the G.R.U., F.S.B. or any agency of the Russian government.” It’s almost as the journalists just wanted a contrarian view to look balanced but what an odd selection if not just set up their witness to be even more important.

I want to be very clear on my next critique: I actually don’t think Jeffrey Carr is a bad person. I know he ruffles the feathers of a lot of folks in the community (mine included at times) but on the two occasions I’ve met him in person he’s been an absolutely nice person to me and was civil and well articulated. That being said, he is not an expert on attribution, not an expert on these groups, nor has any reason to be cited in conjunction with them. He’s often widely criticized in the community when he tries to do attribution and it’s often painfully full of 101 intelligence analysis failures. The NYT didn’t do him any favors by including him in this article and seriously detracted from the idea that they understood enough about this topic to cover it. Simply stated: “cyber” is not an expertise, if you are covering a niche topic like attribution or a further niche topic like Russian group attribution you need to use folks who have experience in that subject matter.

Please Stop Arguing About Attribution Without Expertise In It

This is a bit of a big request but it’d be very useful if people stop taking a stance on why attribution is difficult or not and whether or not attribution is right or not if they have never had experience in doing attribution. This is important because the journalists in this article seem to want to help bolster the case against the Russian intelligence services yet make it more confusing. At one point they try to set up their witness as some new smoking gun to be added to the case as a push back to people like President Trump.

Figure 4: Snippet from NYT Article Setting Up the Importance of the “Witness”

Attribution is not about having a smoking gun. Attribution is a good example of doing true intelligence analysis; there are no certainties and you only can come to an assessment such as low, moderate, or high confidence. Almost every single piece of data put forward in that assessment can and should have counters to it. Very reasonable counters as well. It’s why when anyone arguing for attribution argues a single piece of evidence they almost always lose the argument or look silly. It’s simply very rarely about one piece of evidence and is instead the analysis over the total data set. The attribution levied towards Russia for meddling in the U.S. elections is solid. The reason President Trump and others don’t want to accept that has nothing to do with the fact that there hasn’t been a witness or a “single piece of technical evidence produced that connects the malware used in the D.N.C. attack to the G.R.U.” it is because they do not want to accept the conclusion or the reality it presents. There’s nothing that’s going to change this. I’m convinced that if President Putin came out and said “yea it was us” we’d have critics coming forward saying how it’s a false flag operation and it’s actually not true.

But what’s the problem with people arguing these points? It detracts from the already solid assessment. It’s similar to when the FBI wanted to release IP addresses and some technical indicators during the Sony hack to talk about how they knew it was North Korea. I critiqued that approach when it happened here. The basis of my argument was that the FBI’s attribution to North Korea was likely correct but their presentation of evidence as proof was highly misleading. Obviously the FBI didn’t just use those technical indicators to do the attribution, so how could anyone be expected to look at those and be convinced?  And rightfully so people came out and argued against those technical indicators noting they could easily be wrong and that adversaries of any origin could have leveraged the IP addresses for their operations. And the critiques were correct. The technical evidence in isolation was not good. The totality of the data set though was very sound and the analysis on top of it though were very sound.

I often think of this like climate change arguments. You can have 100 scientists with a career in climate studies posit forth an assessment and then two people with absolutely no experience argue on the subject. One of the people arguing for the climate scientists’ position could grab out a single data point to argue and now the person arguing against that first person is arguing against an uninformed opinion on a single data point instead of the combined analysis and work of the scientists. The two people arguing both leave understandably feeling like they won the argument: the original assessment by the scientists was likely right but the person arguing against the data point was also probably right about their argument against that data point. The only people who lost in this debate were the scientists who weren’t involved in the argument and who’s research wasn’t properly presented.

Closing Thoughts

I never like to just rant about things, I try to use these opportunities as things to learn from. All of this is actually extremely relevant to my SANS FOR578 – Cyber Threat Intelligence course so a lot of times I write these blog posts and reference them in class. So with that theme in mind here’s the things I want you to extract from this blog as learning moments (to my students, to the journalists, and to whomever else finds it valuable).

  • If you are doing research/writing on niche topics please find people with expertise in that niche topic (Jeffrey Carr is not an expert on attribution)
  • If you are going to posit that the entire public understanding of a nation-state group’s MO has changed because a single piece of evidence you’re likely wrong (do more homework)
  • If you are going to posit that there is a witness that can change the narrative about a case please talk to people familiar on the case (determine if that type of evidence is even important)
  • If you are going to write on a topic that is highly controversial research the previous controversy first (GRIZZLYSTEPPE was entirely unrelated to the DNC case)
  • Attribution is not done with single pieces of evidence or a smoking gun it is done as analysis on complex data sets most of which is not even technical (attribution is hard but doable)
  • The most interesting data for attribution isn’t highly classified but instead just hard work/analysis on complex scenarios (classification standards don’t imply accuracy or relevancy)
  • Just because someone’s code was used by an adversary does not imply the author knows anything about how it was used or by whom (the threat is the human not the malware)
  • Stop using pew pew maps (seriously just stop; it makes you look like an idiot)


Critiques of the DHS/FBI’s GRIZZLY STEPPE Report

December 30, 2016

On December 29th, 2016 the White House released a statement from the President of the United States (POTUS) that formally accused Russia of interfering with the US elections, amongst other activities. This statement laid out the beginning of the US’ response including sanctions against Russian military and intelligence community members.  The purpose of this blog post is to specifically look at the DHS and FBI’s Joint Analysis Report (JAR) on Russian civilian and military Intelligence Services (RIS) titled “GRIZZLY STEPPE – Russian Malicious Cyber Activity”. For those interested in a discussion on the larger purpose of the POTUS statement and surrounding activity take a look at Thomas Rid’s and Matt Tait’s Twitter feeds for good commentary on the subject.

Background to the Report

For years there has been solid public evidence by private sector intelligence companies such as CrowdStrike, FireEye, and Kaspersky that has called attention to Russian-based cyber activity. These groups have been tracked for a considerable amount of time (years) across multiple victim organizations. The latest high profile case relevant to the White House’s statement was CrowdStrike’s analysis of COZYBEAR and FANCYBEAR breaking into the DNC and leaking emails and information. These groups are also known by FireEye as the APT28 and APT29 campaign groups.

The White House’s response is ultimately a strong and accurate statement. The attribution towards the Russian government was confirmed by the US government using their sources and methods on top of good private sector analysis. I am going to critique aspects of the DHS/FBI report below but I want to make a very clear statement: POTUS’ statement, the multiple government agency response, and the validation of private sector intelligence by the government is wholly a great response. This helps establish a clear norm in the international community although that topic is best reserved for a future discussion.

Expectations of the Report

Most relevant to this blog, the lead in to the DHS/FBI report was given by the White House in their fact sheet on the Russian cyber activity (Figure 1).




Figure 1: White House Fact Sheet in Response to Russian Cyber Activity

The fact sheet lays out very clearly the purpose of the DHS/FBI report. It notes a few key points:

  • The report is intended to help network defenders; it is not the technical evidence of attribution
  • The report contains a combination of private sector data and declassified government data
  • The report will help defenders identify and block Russian malware – this is specifically declassified government data not private sector data
  • The report goes beyond indicators to include new tradecraft and techniques used by the Russian intelligence services

If anyone is like me, when I read the above I became very excited. This was a clear statement from the White House that they were going to help network defenders, give out a combination of previously classified data as well as validate private sector data, release information about Russian malware that was previously classified, and detail new tactics and techniques used by Russia. Unfortunately, while the intent was laid out clearly by the White House that intent was not captured in the DHS/FBI report.

Because what I’m going to write below is blunt feedback I want to note ahead of time, I’m doing this for the purpose of the community as well as government operators/report writers who read to learn and become better. I understand that it is always hard to publish things from the government. In my time working in the U.S. Intelligence Community on such cases it was extremely rare that anything was released publicly and when it was it was almost always disappointing as the best material and information had been stripped out. For that reason, I want to especially note, and say thank you, to the government operators who did fantastic work and tried their best to push out the best information. For those involved in the sanitation of that information and the report writing – well, read below.

DHS/FBI’s GRIZZLY STEPPE Report – Opportunities for Improvement

Let’s explore each main point that I created from the White House fact sheet to critique the DHS/FBI report and show opportunities for improvement in the future.

 The report is intended to help network defenders; it is not the technical evidence of attribution

There is no mention of the focus of attribution in any of the White House’s statements. Across multiple statements from government officials and agencies it is clear that the technical data and attribution will be a report prepared for Congress and later declassified (likely prepared by the NSA). Yet, the GRIZZLY STEPPE report reads like a poorly done vendor intelligence report stringing together various aspects of attribution without evidence. The beginning of the report (Figure 2) specifically notes that the DHS/FBI has avoided attribution before in their JARs but that based off of their technical indicators they can confirm the private sector attribution to RIS.



Figure 2: Beginning of DHS/FBI GRIZZLY STEPPE JAR

The next section is the DHS/FBI description which is entirely focused on APT28 and APT29’s compromise of “a political party” (the DNC). Here again they confirm attribution (Figure 3).



Figure 3: Description Section of DHS/FBI GRIZZLY STEPPE JAR

But why is this so bad? Because it does not follow the intent laid out by the White House and confuses readers to think that this report is about attribution and not the intended purpose of helping network defenders. The public is looking for evidence of the attribution, the White House and the DHS/FBI clearly laid out that this report is meant for network defense, and then the entire discussion in the document is on how the DHS/FBI confirms that APT28 and APT29 are RIS groups that compromised a political party. The technical indicators they released later in the report (which we will discuss more below) are in no way related to that attribution though.

Or said more simply: the written portion of the report has little to nothing to do with the intended purpose or the technical data released.

Even worse, page 4 of the document notes other groups identified as RIS (Figure 4). This would be exciting normally. Government validation of private sector intelligence helps raise the confidence level of the public information. Unfortunately, the list in the report detracts from the confidence because of the interweaving of unrelated data.



Figure 4: Reported RIS Names from DHS/FBI GRIZZLY STEPPE Report

As an example, the list contains campaign/group names such as APT28, APT29, COZYBEAR, Sandworm, Sofacy, and others. This is exactly what you’d want to see although the government’s justification for this assessment is completely lacking (for a better exploration on the topic of naming see Sergio Caltagirone’s blog post here). But as the list progresses it becomes worrisome as the list also contains malware names (HAVEX and BlackEnergy v3 as examples) which are different than campaign names. Campaign names describe a collection of intrusions into one or more victims by the same adversary. Those campaigns can utilize various pieces of malware and sometimes malware is consistent across unrelated campaigns and unrelated actors. It gets worse though when the list includes things such as “Powershell Backdoor”. This is not even a malware family at this point but instead a classification of a capability that can be found in various malware families.

Or said more simply: the list of reported RIS names includes relevant and specific names such as campaign names, more general and often unrelated malware family names, and extremely broad and non-descriptive classification of capabilities. It was a mixing of data types that didn’t meet any objective in the report and only added confusion as to whether the DHS/FBI knows what they are doing or if they are instead just telling teams in the government “contribute anything you have that has been affiliated with Russian activity.”


The report contains a combination of private sector data and declassified government data

This is a much shorter critique but still an important one: there is no way to tell what data was private sector data and what was declassified government data. Different data types have different confidence levels. If you observe a piece of malware on your network communicating to adversary command and control (C2) servers you would feel confident using that information to find other infections in your network. If someone randomly passed you an IP address without context you might not be sure how best to leverage it or just generally cautious to do so as it might generate alerts of non-malicious nature and waste your time investigating it. In the same way, it is useful to know what is government data from previously classified sources and what is data from the private sector and more importantly who in the private sector. Organizations will have different trust or confidence levels of the different types of data and where it came from. Unfortunately, this is entirely missing. The report does not source its data at all. It’s a random collection of information and in that way, is mostly useless.

Or said more simply: always tell people where you got your data, separate it from your own data which you have a higher confidence level in having observed first hand, and if you are using other people’s campaign names, data, analysis, etc. explain why so that analysts can do something with it instead of treating it as random situational awareness.


The report will help defenders identify and block Russian malware – this is specifically declassified government data not private sector data

The lead in to the report specifically noted that information about the Russian malware was newly declassified and would be given out; this is in contrary to other statements that the information was part private sector and part government data. When looking through the technical indicators though there is little context to the information released.

In some locations in the CSV the indicators are IP addresses with a request to network administrators to look for it and in other locations there are IP addresses with just what country it was located in. This information is nearly useless for a few reasons. First, we do not know what data set these indicators belong to (see my previous point, are these IPs for “Sandworm”, “APT28” “Powershell” or what?). Second, many (30%+) of these IP addresses are mostly useless as they are VPS, TOR exit nodes, proxies, and other non-descriptive internet traffic sites (you can use this type of information but not in the way being positioned in the report and not well without additional information such as timestamps). Third, IP addresses as indicators especially when associated with malware or adversary campaigns must contain information around timing. I.e. when were these IP addresses associated with the malware or campaign and when were they in active usage? IP addresses and domains are constantly getting shuffled around the Internet and are mostly useful when seen in a snapshot of time.

But let’s focus on the malware specifically which was laid out by the White House fact sheet as newly declassified information. The CSV does contain information for around 30 malicious files (Figure 5). Unfortunately, all but two have the same problems as the IP addresses in that there isn’t appropriate context as to what most of them are related to and when they were leveraged.



Figure 5: CSV of Indicators from the GRIZZLY STEPPE Report

What is particularly frustrating is that this might have been some of the best information if done correctly. A quick look in VirusTotal Intelligence reveals that many of these hashes were not being tracked previously as associated to any specific adversary campaign (Figure 6). Therefore, if the DHS/FBI was to confirm that these samples of malware were part of RIS operations it would help defenders and incident responders prioritize and further investigate these samples if they had found them before. As Ben Miller pointed out, this helps encourage folks to do better root cause analysis of seemingly generic malware (Figure 6).


Figure 6: Tweet from Ben Miller on GRIZZLY STEPPE Malware Hashes

So what’s the problem? All but the two hashes released that state they belong to the OnionDuke family do not contain the appropriate context for defenders to leverage them. Without knowing what campaign they were associated with and when there’s not appropriate information for defenders to investigate these discoveries on their network. They can block the activity (play the equivalent of whack-a-mole) but not leverage it for real defense without considerable effort. Additionally, the report specifically said this was newly declassified information. However, looking the samples in VirusTotal Intelligence (Figure 7) reveals that many of them were already known dating back to April 2016.



Figure 7: VirusTotal Intelligence Lookup of One Digital Hash from GRIZZLY STEPPE

The only thing that would thus be classified about this data (note they said newly declassified and not private sector information) would be the association of this malware to a specific family or campaign instead of leaving it as “generic.” But as noted that information was left out. It’s also not fair to say it’s all “RIS” given the DHS/FBI’s inappropriate aggregation of campaign, malware, and capability names in their “Reported RIS” list. As an example, they used one name from their “Reported RIS” list (OnionDuke) and thus some of the other samples might be from there as well such as “Powershell Backdoor” which is wholly not descriptive. Either way we don’t know because they left that information out. Also as a general pet peeve, the hashes are sometimes given as MD5, sometimes as SHA1, and sometimes as SHA256. It’s ok to choose whatever standard you want if you’re giving out information but be consistent in the data format.

Or more simply stated: the indicators are not very descriptive and will have a high rate of false positives for defenders that use them. A few of the malware samples are interesting and now have context (OnionDuke) to their use but the majority do not have the required context to make them useful without considerable effort by defenders. Lastly, some of the samples were already known and the government information does not add any value – if these were previously classified it is a perfect example of over classification by government bureaucracy.


The report goes beyond indicators to include new tradecraft and techniques used by the Russian intelligence services

The report was to detail new tradecraft and techniques used by the RIS and specifically noted that defenders could leverage this to find new tactics and techniques. Except – it doesn’t. The report instead gives a high-level overview of how APT28 and APT29 have been reported to operate which is very generic and similar to many adversary campaigns (Figure 8). The tradecraft and techniques presented specific to the RIS include things such as “using shortened URLs”, “spear phishing”, “lateral movement”, and “escalating privileges” once in the network. This is basically the same set of tactics used across unrelated campaigns for the last decade or more.



Figure 8: APT28 and APT29 Tactics as Described by DHS/FBI GRIZZLY STEPPE Report

This description in the report wouldn’t be a problem for a more generic audience. If this was the DHS/FBI trying to explain to the American public how attacks like this were carried out it might even be too technical but it would be ok. The stated purpose though was for network defenders to discover new RIS tradecraft. With that purpose, it is not technical or descriptive enough and is simply a rehashing of what is common network defense knowledge. Moreover, if you would read a technical report from FireEye on APT28 or APT29 you would have better context and technical information to do defense than if you read the DHS/FBI document.

Closing Thoughts

The White House’s response and combined messaging from the government agencies is well done and the technical attribution provided by private sector companies has been solid for quite some time. However, the DHS/FBI GRIZZLY STEPPE report does not meet its stated intent of helping network defenders and instead choose to focus on a confusing assortment of attribution, non-descriptive indicators, and re-hashed tradecraft. Additionally, the bulk of the report (8 of the 13 pages) is general high level recommendations not descriptive of the RIS threats mentioned and with no linking to what activity would help with what aspect of the technical data covered. It simply serves as an advertisement of documents and programs the DHS is trying to support. One recommendation for Whitelisting Applications might as well read “whitelisting is good mm’kay?”  If that recommendation would have been overlaid with what it would have stopped in this campaign specifically and how defenders could then leverage that information going forward it would at least have been descriptive and useful. Instead it reads like a copy/paste of DHS’ most recent documents – at least in a vendor report you usually only get 1 page of marketing instead of 8.

This ultimately seems like a very rushed report put together by multiple teams working different data sets and motivations. It is my opinion and speculation that there were some really good government analysts and operators contributing to this data and then report reviews, leadership approval processes, and sanitation processes stripped out most of the value and left behind a very confusing report trying to cover too much while saying too little.

We must do better as a community. This report is a good example of how a really strong strategic message (POTUS statement) and really good data (government and private sector combination) can be opened to critique due to poor report writing.



The DHS released an updated version which I thought did a great job of analysis; my analysis of it can be found here:

Threats of Cyber Attacks Against Russia: Rationale on Discussing Operations and the Precedent Set

November 6, 2016

Reports that the U.S. government has military hackers ready to carry out attacks on Russian critical infrastructure has elicited a wide range of responses on social media. After I tweeted the NBC article a number of people responded with how stupid the U.S. was for releasing this information, or what poor OPSEC it was to discuss these operations, and even how this constitutes an act of war. I want to use this blog to put forth some thoughts of mine on those specific claims. However, I want to note in advance this is entirely my opinion. I wouldn’t consider this quality analysis or even insightful commentary but instead just my thoughts on the matter that I felt compelled to share since I work in critical infrastructure cyber security and was at one point a “military hacker.”

The Claim

The claim stems from an NBC article and notes that a senior U.S. intelligence official shared top-secret documents with NBC News. These top-secret documents apparently indicated that the U.S. has “penetrated Russia’s electric grid, telecommunications networks and the Kremlin’s command systems, making them vulnerable to attack by secret American cyber weapons should the U.S. deem it necessary.” I’m going to make the assumption that this was a controlled leak given the way that it was presented. Additionally, I make this assumption because of the senior officials that were interviewed for the wider story including former NATO commander (ret) ADM James G. Stavridis and former CYBERCOM Judge Advocate (ret) COL Gary Brown who likely would not have touched a true “leak” driven story without some sort of blessing to do so. I.e. before anyone adds that this is some sort of mistake this was very likely authorized by the President at the request of senior officials or advisers such as the Director of National Intelligence or the National Security Council. The President is the highest authority for deeming material classified or not and if he decided to release this information it’s an authorized leak. Going off of this assumption let’s consider three claims that I’ve seen recently.

The U.S. is Stupid for Releasing This Information

It is very difficult to know the rationale behind actions we observe. This is especially true in cyber intrusions and attacks. If an adversary happens to deny access to a server, did they intend to or was it accidentally brought down while performing other actions? Did the adversary intend to leave behind references to file paths and identifying information or was it a mistake? These debates around intent and observations is a challenge for many analysts that must be carefully overcome. In this case it is no different.

Given the assumption that this is a controlled leak it was obviously done with the intention of one or more outcomes. In other words, the U.S. government wanted the information out and their rationale is likely as varied as the members involved. While discussing a “government” it’s important to remember that the decision was ultimately in the hands of individuals, likely two dozen at the most. Their recommendations, biases, views on the world, insight, experience, etc. all contribute to what they expect the output of this leak to manifest as. This makes it even more difficult to assess why a government would do something since it’s more important to know the key members in the Administration, the military, and the Intelligence Community and their motivations rather than the historical understanding of government operations and similar decisions. Considering the decision was likely not ‘stupid’ and more for some intended purpose let’s explore what two of those purposes might be:


I’m usually not the biggest fan of deterrence in the digital domain as it has since not been very effective and the qualities to have a proper deterrent (credible threat and an understood threshold) are often lacking. Various governments lament about red lines and actions they might do if those red lines are crossed but what exactly those red lines are and what the response action will be if they are crossed is usually never explored. Here however, the U.S. government has stated a credible threat: the disruption of critical infrastructure in Russia (the U.S. has shown before that they are capable of doing this). They have combined this with a clear threshold of what they do not want their potential adversary to do: do not disrupt the elections. For these reasons my normal skepticism around deterrence is lessened. However, in my own personal opinion this is potentially a side effect and not the primary purpose especially given the form of communication that was chosen.

Voter Confidence

Relations between Russia and the U.S. this election have been tense. Posturing and messaging between the two states has taken a variety of forms both direct and indirect. This release to NBC though is interesting as it would be indirect messaging if positioned to the Russian government but it would be direct messaging if intended for the U.S. voters. My personal opinion (read: speculation) is that it is much more intended for the voters. At one point in the article NBC notes that Administration officials revealed to them that they delivered a “back channel warning to Russia against any attempt to influence next week’s vote”. There’s no reason to reiterate a back channel message in a public article unless the intended audience (in this case the voters) weren’t aware of the back channel warning. The article reads as an effort by the Administration to tell the voters: “don’t worry and go vote, we’ve warned them that any effort to disrupt the elections will be met with tangible attacks instead of strongly worded letters.”

It’s really interesting that this type of messaging to the American public is needed. Cyber security has never been such a mainstream topic before especially not during an election. This may seem odd to those in the information security community who live with these discussions on a day to day basis anyway. But coverage of cyber security has never before been mainstream media worthy for consistent periods of time. CNN, Fox, MSNBC, and the BBC have all been discussing cyber security throughout the recent election season ranging from the DNC hacks to Hillary’s emails. That coverage has gotten fairly dark though with CNN, NBC, Newsweek, and New York Times articles like this one and prime time segments telling voters that the election could be manipulated by Russian spies.

This CNN piece directly calls out the Kremlin for potentially manipulating the elections in a way that combines it with Trump’s claims that the election is rigged. This is a powerful combination. There is a significant portion of Trump’s supporters who will believe his claim of a rigged election and in conjunction with the belief that Russia is messing with the election it’s easy to see how a voter could become disillusioned with the election. Neither the Democrats or Republicans want less voters to turn out and (almost) all of those on both sides want the peaceful transition of power after the election as has always occurred before. Strong messaging from the Administration and others into mainstream news media is important to restore confidence to voters both in the election itself as well as the manner to which people vote.

Unfortunately, it seems that this desire is being accidentally countered by some in the security community. In very odd timing, Cylance decided to release a press release on vulnerabilities in voting machines on the same day, unbeknownst to them, as the NBC article. The press release stated that the intent of the release was to encourage mitigation of the vulnerabilities but with 4 days until the election, as of the article’s release, that simply will not be possible. The move is likely very well intended but unlikely to give voters much confidence in the manner to which they vote. I’ll avoid a tangent here but it’s worth mentioning the impact security companies can play on larger political discussions.

The Leak is Bad OPSEC

I will not spend as much time on this claim as I did the previous but it is worth noting the reaction that releasing this type of information is bad operational security. Operational security is often very important to ensure that government operations can be coordinated effectively without the adversary having the advance warning required to defend against the operation. However, in this case the intention of the leak is likely much more around deterrence or voter confidence and therefore the operation itself is not the point. Keeping the operation secret would not have helped either potential goal. More importantly, compromising information systems is not something that has ever been see as insurmountably difficult. For the U.S. government to reveal that it has compromised Russian systems does not magically make them more secure now. Russian defense personnel do not have anything more to go off of than before in terms of searching for the compromise, they likely already assumed they were compromised, and looking for a threat and cleaning it up across multiple critical infrastructure industries and networks would take more than 4 days even if they had robust technical indicators of compromise and insight (which the leak did not give them). The interesting part of the disclosure is not the OPSEC but in the precedence it sets which I’ll discuss in the next section.

The Compromises are an Act of War

Acts of war are governed under United Nations’ Article 2(4) where it discusses armed conflict. The unofficial rules regarding war in cyberspace are contained in the Tallinn Manual. In neither of these documents is the positioning of capabilities to do future damage considered an act of war. More importantly, in the NBC article it notes that the “cyber weapons” have not been deployed yet: “The cyber weapons would only be deployed in the unlikely event the U.S. was attacked in a significant way, officials say.” Therefore, what is being discussed is cyber operations that have gained access to Russian critical infrastructure networks but not positioned “weapons” to do damage yet. Intrusions into networks have never been seen as an act of war by any of the countries involved in such operations. So what’s interesting about this?  The claim by officials that the U.S. had compromised Russian critical infrastructure networks including the electric grid years ago.

For years U.S. intelligence officials have positioned that Russian, Chinese, Iranian, and at times North Korean government operators have been “probing” U.S. critical infrastructure such as the power grid. The pre-positioning of malware in the power grid has long been rumored and has been a key concern of senior officials. The acknowledgment in a possibly intended leak that the U.S. has been doing the same for years now is significant. It should come as no surprise to anyone in the information security community but as messaging from senior officials it does set a precedent internationally (albeit small given that this is a leak and not a direct statement from the government). Now, if capabilities or intrusions were found in the power grid by the U.S. government in a way that was made public the offending countries could claim they were only doing the same as the U.S. government. In my personal experience, there is credibility to claims that other countries have been compromising the power grid for years so I would argue against the “U.S. started it” claim that is sure to follow.  The assumption is that governments try to compromise the power grid ahead of time so that when needed they can damage it for military or political purposes. But the specific compromises that have occurred have not been communicated publicly by senior officials nor have they been done with attribution towards Russia or China. The only time a similar specific case was discussed with attribution was against Iran for compromising a small dam in New York and the action was heavily criticized by officials and met with a Department of Justice indictment.  Senior officials’ acknowledgment of U.S. cyber operations compromising foreign power grids for the purpose of carrying out attacks if needed is unique and a message likely heard loudly even if later denied. It would be difficult to state that the leak will embolden adversaries to do this type of activity if they weren’t already but it does in some ways make the operations more legitimate. Claiming responsibility for such compromises while indicting countries for doing the same definitely makes the U.S. look hypocritical regardless of how its rationalized.

Parting Thoughts

My overall thought is that this information was a controlled leak designed to help voters feel more confident in terms of both going to cast their ballots and in the overall outcome. Some level of deterrence was likely a side effect that the Administration sought. But no, this was not simply a stupid move nor was it bad OPSEC or an act of war. I also doubt it is simply a bluff. However, there is some precedent set and pre-positioning access to critical infrastructures around the world just became a little more legitimate.

One thing that struck me as new in the article though was the claim that the U.S. military used cyber attacks to turn out the lights temporarily in Baghdad during the 2003 Iraq invasion. When considering the officials interviewed for the story and the nature of the (again, possibly) controlled leak that is a new claim from senior government officials. There was an old rumor that Bush had that option on the table when invading Iraq but the rumor was the attack was cancelled for fear of the collateral damage of taking down a power grid. One can never be sure how long “temporary” might be when damaging such infrastructure. The claim in the article that the attack actually went forward would make that the first cyber attack on a power grid that led to outages – not the Ukrainian attack of 2015 (claims of a Brazilian outage years earlier were never proven and seem false from available information). However, the claim is counter to reports at the time that power outages did not occur during the initial hours of the invasion. Power outages were reported in Iraq but after the ending of active combat operations and looters were blamed. If a cyber attack in Iraq ever made sense militarily it would not have made as much sense after the initial invasion.

I’ve emailed the reporter of the story asking what the source of that claim was and I will update the blog if I get an answer. It is possible the officials stated this to the reporters but misspoke. In my time in the government it was not a rare event for senior officials to confuse details of operations or hear myths outside of the workplace and assume them to be true. Hopefully, I can find out more as that is a historically significant claim. Based on what is known currently I am skeptical that outages following the initial Iraq invasion in 2003 were due to a cyber attack.