Feeds

Two infosec blunders that betrayed the Russian spy ring

Password: KGBmoscow2010

5 things you didn’t know about cloud backup

Everyone is having fun this week speculating on all aspects of the alleged Russian spy ring busted in the US on Monday. How were they initially detected? Are they just a decoy to hide the real spies? Why did the US go public now? Has anyone got any more pictures of Anna Chapman for the front pages?

From what little we do know though - ie the content of the FBI's criminal complaints - it's apparent the group's technology tradecraft was not as sharp as you might expect from deep cover spies.

Here we present their two most glaring infosec failings.

  • Return of the MAC

    Anna Chapman and her UN-based Russian government handler allegedly held ten meetings around Manhattan between January and June. They would not make overt contact but would exchange data over an ad hoc Wi-Fi network.

    Chapman and the offical made things easy for their watchers, however, by using the same laptops with the same MAC addresses every time. It meant the FBI could tell whenever the pair were in contact simply by following them and using an off-the shelf Wi-Fi network analyser package to match the two MAC addresses.

    The pair could have simply used multiple machines, or used any one of an array of utilities that would have allowed them to spoof their MAC addresses. Instead, the FBI's complaint that Chapman was an undeclared agent of a foreign government draws heavily on correlating the two numbers broadcast between her laptop and her handler's.

    Chapman knew enough about countering surveillance to buy a "burner" mobile phone and international calling card under a fake name to contact Moscow, apparently after she suspected her new handler (in fact an undercover FBI agent) was not all he seemed last weekend. But that was after she had given him her laptop for repairs.

    There are plenty of other options of course for more secure coffee shop wireless data exchanges; post your idea in comments.

  • Password pants down

    In 2005, the FBI obtained a warrant for a covert search of Richard and Cynthia Murphy's home in Montclair, New Jersey.

    Agents made forensic copies of "a set of computer disks" and took photographs of documents. The disks are described in court documents as "password protected" - it's unclear whether the password was required to decrypt the disks, or simply to use the steganography program they contained.

    That open question is academic, however, because the couple had helpfully written down the 27-character password for the FBI's photographers. "The paper said "alt", "control", and "e", and set forth a string of 27 characters," the court documents explain. "Using these 27 characters as a password, technicians have been able successfully to access a software program."

    This was apparently a crucial development in the investigation, because access to the steganography programme, which had allegedly been developed by Russia's foreign intelligence service and is not available commercially, enabled the FBI to easily find and decrypt more than one hundred hidden messages on the Murphy's hard-drive, which was also forensically copied during the raid.

    Of course, it's possible investigators would have unlocked the programme anyway using brute force or other attacks, but by writing their passwords down on paper and keeping it at home the "Murphys" made it comically easy for them. The resulting cache of secret messages apparently forms the basis of much of US knowledge about the Russian spy ring.

Such blundering will do little to quell those speculating the spy ring was some sort of dastardly setup by Moscow Centre to occupy US counter-espionage investigators. Real cynics will suggest the episode proves spies are just like any other users. ®

The essential guide to IT transformation

More from The Register

next story
GCHQ protesters stick it to British spooks ... by drinking urine
Activists told NOT to snap pics of staff at the concrete doughnut
Britain's housing crisis: What are we going to do about it?
Rent control: Better than bombs at destroying housing
What do you mean, I have to POST a PHYSICAL CHEQUE to get my gun licence?
Stop bitching about firearms fees - we need computerisation
Top beak: UK privacy law may be reconsidered because of social media
Rise of Twitter etc creates 'enormous challenges'
Redmond resists order to hand over overseas email
Court wanted peek as related to US investigation
Ex US cybersecurity czar guilty in child sex abuse website case
Health and Human Services IT security chief headed online to share vile images
NZ Justice Minister scalped as hacker leaks emails
Grab your popcorn: Subterfuge and slur disrupts election run up
prev story

Whitepapers

Endpoint data privacy in the cloud is easier than you think
Innovations in encryption and storage resolve issues of data privacy and key requirements for companies to look for in a solution.
Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Advanced data protection for your virtualized environments
Find a natural fit for optimizing protection for the often resource-constrained data protection process found in virtual environments.
Boost IT visibility and business value
How building a great service catalog relieves pressure points and demonstrates the value of IT service management.
Next gen security for virtualised datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.