Feeds

Two infosec blunders that betrayed the Russian spy ring

Password: KGBmoscow2010

Combat fraud and increase customer satisfaction

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. ®

SANS - Survey on application security programs

More from The Register

next story
Android engineer: We DIDN'T copy Apple OR follow Samsung's orders
Veep testifies for Samsung during Apple patent trial
MtGox chief Karpelès refuses to come to US for g-men's grilling
Bitcoin baron says he needs another lawyer for FinCEN chat
Did a date calculation bug just cost hard-up Co-op Bank £110m?
And just when Brit banking org needs £400m to stay afloat
One year on: diplomatic fail as Chinese APT gangs get back to work
Mandiant says past 12 months shows Beijing won't call off its hackers
Don't let no-hire pact suit witnesses call Steve Jobs a bullyboy, plead Apple and Google
'Irrelevant' character evidence should be excluded – lawyers
EFF: Feds plan to put 52 MILLION FACES into recognition database
System would identify faces as part of biometrics collection
Big Content goes after Kim Dotcom
Six studios sling sueballs at dead download destination
Ex-Tony Blair adviser is new top boss at UK spy-hive GCHQ
Robert Hannigan to replace Sir Iain Lobban in the autumn
Alphadex fires back at British Gas with overcharging allegation
Brit colo outfit says it paid for 347KVA, has been charged for 1940KVA
Jack the RIPA: Blighty cops ignore law, retain innocents' comms data
Prime minister: Nothing to see here, go about your business
prev story

Whitepapers

Designing a defence for mobile apps
In this whitepaper learn the various considerations for defending mobile applications; from the mobile application architecture itself to the myriad testing technologies needed to properly assess mobile applications risk.
3 Big data security analytics techniques
Applying these Big Data security analytics techniques can help you make your business safer by detecting attacks early, before significant damage is done.
Five 3D headsets to be won!
We were so impressed by the Durovis Dive headset we’ve asked the company to give some away to Reg readers.
The benefits of software based PBX
Why you should break free from your proprietary PBX and how to leverage your existing server hardware.
Securing web applications made simple and scalable
In this whitepaper learn how automated security testing can provide a simple and scalable way to protect your web applications.