Tracking a Hacker with OSINT

My blog has been hacked! Someone defaced the page and looking into the technical details didn’t provide any leads to the culprit. Maybe OSINT can help in this case.

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Today’s article will look into cyber attribution and how OSINT can help identify the perpetrator of a cyberattack or other hacking exploits. Keep in mind, as long as the perpetrator does not make any mistakes it will be hard to track him down. Even if the actual person behind an attack cannot be found, hints on the hacker’s background may help narrow things down to a specific target group or origin. Let us have a closer look at the defacement shown above.

As stated, looking into technical details (IP-address, code, etc.) did not reveal anything useful. So we have to take a closer look at the tag and handle that was placed on our site. A reverse image search was conducted and did not show any results. The hacker goes by the name “drag0nw1ng١٩٨١”, this exact search-term also came up inconclusive. The Arabic numbers in the handle may be an indicator for the hacker’s cultural background. Next up, we will search for the handle in different variations, including a “standardized” one:

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Not many results to look at here, so we can easily go through each and every page. Next to a Russian PlayStation profile named Dragonwing1981, we stumble upon some interesting results that might be related to our case.

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Several data-breaches and leaks show an email address using the exact name. Dragonwing1981@yahoo.com was registered to a member of an internet forum called Kataib Hezbollah. This forum in Arabic language no longer exists and was used to disseminate terrorist propaganda. Since our hacker used Arabic numbers in his handle and the handle seems quite unique (based on the low amount of Google results), the email address might be linked to our guy.

The oldest mentioning of “dragonwing1981” came from another internet forum. In August 2004, the forum was hacked by someone with the email address we found before:

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Research done by the forum members linked the perpetrator to Iraq:

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Looks like things are coming together. There is one more approach we can try, in order to back our claims further. When using the password reset function in Yahoo, it gives you parts of the phone number (without the country code). Let us see what happens, when we try to reset Dragonwing’s password:

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07 is the operator code used by Iraqi mobile networks and the length of the number also fits Iraqi mobile phone numbers. Luckily, Yahoo (unlike Google) displays the exact amount of digits of a phone number.

Let us review the evidence we have collected so far:

  • Use of Arabic numbers in the handle
  • Unique handle, not found often on the internet
  • Username and a related email address found in an Arabic internet forum
  • Email address used in a hack in 2004, identified as possibly originating from Iraq
  • Phone number linked to the email address possibly an Iraqi mobile phone number

Can we be sure that all these pieces of evidence are really linked to each other? Not really, but that is why we use words of estimative probability in intelligence analysis. Cyber attribution is not always about tradecraft, infrastructure or the malware/attack itself. Digging into individual actors may help shed light upon the origins of cyber-attacks and the OSINT process shown above should always be incorporated into any research effort as soon as “personal data” (e.g. tags, names, handles) is involved.

Of course, we could just send Dragonwing1981 an email and congratulate him on his defacement. However, unlike other stories on my blog, this one is completely made up and is based on a CTF-task I created for the OSINT courses I instruct. As far as I am concerned, Dragonwing1981 is innocent…

Matthias Wilson / 02.05.2019

Intelligence Collection on the Train

Sometimes I miss my SIGINT days: Listening into my target’s phone calls and getting juicy intelligence out of this. However, you don’t always need SIGINT to eavesdrop on interesting conversations.

The company that I work for offers a broad variety of security products. When it comes to securing valuable data and information, most of our customers rely on technical solutions. However, the best firewalls and security suites will not help, if information is continuously disclosed outside of hardened IT-environments by careless employees. As a former SIGINTer I was always astonished about how much information my intelligence targets would openly share over non-secure lines. Now that I left SIGINT behind, I still have the chance to eavesdrop on conversations every once in a while.

I have a one-hour commute to work each day and the time I am on the train has proven to be a valuable social engineering and OSINT training ground. Two weeks ago, I was sitting on the train when a gentleman sat down next to me and immediately started making phone calls.

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The second phone call went to a woman named Kelly Adams. I know this because I could see her name on the screen of his phone. I could hear everything he said and since his volume was cranked up, I could also hear parts of what Kelly had said. Curious as I am, I immediately googled Kelly. Based on what I had heard, I could narrow it down to three individuals. One woman working for a large German defense company and two others in IT firms. The topic of the conversation was a pretty significant retention bonus that Kelly would receive, if she decided to stay with the company and move to Munich. It turns out the company was currently relocating its headquarters to Munich.

As soon as the gentleman ended this conversation, he started writing emails on his phone. Again in plain sight and did I mention that I am very curious? It turned out his name is Andreas Müller. Searching for the combination “Kelly Adams” and “Andreas Müller” led to the exact company. Dr. Andreas Müller was the head of the research and development department of a large German defense company and Kelly was one of the leading project managers for a specific branch. I did not need any sophisticated OSINT skills here, a simple Google query and LinkedIn search was enough. Dr. Müller then sent the details of the retention bonus to someone named Alfred, whom I assume was in HR. If I would have been working for an opposing company, I could have easily used this information to counter the offer Kelly received. But wait, it gets even better!

Next up, Dr. Müller opened spreadsheets depicting the budget of certain projects. Dr. Müller was sitting on my right and I held my phone to my right ear, simulated a conversation and managed to get a couple pictures of his screen. As of now, I had seen enough and it was time to approach him.

“Excuse me, Dr. Müller. May I ask you a question?”

You should have seen the look on his face. Surprised and shocked, as he was clearly not expecting this. I asked him if the conversations and the emails he had looked at were sensitive. I told him what I had picked up from his conversation with Kelly and showed him a picture of the spreadsheet. Still shocked, he did not really know how to react. I explained my line of work and handed him a business card. Dr. Müller can consider himself lucky, usually I charge customers for this kind of consulting and I think he learned a valuable lesson.

Remember: No matter how good your cyber security measures are, the most important aspect is minimizing human error and taking security serious at all times. I have often read that there is no patch for human stupidity. I do not agree and I am sure that Dr. Müller has been “patched” after our train ride.

I guess I never will be able to let the SIGINT side of me go. I just love eavesdropping in on people, so be careful what you say in public or on your phone, you never know if someone is  listening!

Matthias Wilson / 26.03.2019

How I Became Ted Mosby

Remember Ted Mosby from the sitcom How I Met Your Mother? This fictional TV character inspired a pretext for social engineering in an actual investigation.

Not all investigations can be conducted solely online. Sometimes, information that is discovered on the internet has to be verified in the real world. Many of these cases then require certain social engineering skills to obtain access to otherwise restricted areas. One of the most important aspects of social engineering is the pretext used to present oneself. This is more than just a quick and simple lie, it requires the creation of a complete identity to impersonate someone that will be able to gain the trust of whoever you are using it against. A large portion of the pretexting process is actually OSINT: Gathering the relevant information in order to appear credible.

A while back, I was working on a case in which I had to verify the location of a certain company and try to figure out if the company actually did business there or if this address was just used as a mailbox. Google Street View was not helpful, as in most cases in Germany, and a quick walk-by revealed the address was a large gated town villa. No information on the target company was visible on mailboxes at the gate. To be completely sure, I had to gain inside access and in this particular case, my customer asked for conclusive evidence of my findings. The challenge was finding a way inside that would enable me to snoop around and even take pictures. Further research revealed that the town villa also accommodated a law firm, an advertising firm and an investment management company. I initially thought of posing as a parcel courier to gain entrance and then use a hidden camera to document what I found. However, this pretext came with lots of downsides. I would require a uniform, have to deliver a fake parcel (which would surely strike attention as soon they opened it) and using hidden cameras has always proven tricky in the past when trying to get quality images.

I did a little more OSINT research and found out the estate itself was designed and built by a famous German architect. It was one of his early works. At the time, I was just watching some old episodes of How I Met Your Mother. In one of the episodes, the main character Ted Mosby was giving an architecture lecture as a professor, boring his students with architectural facts. That gave me the idea to pose as a young architecture professor preparing a course on the style of architecture the town villa was built in. Of course, I would also need pictures of the house to point out certain style elements of the villa. With this idea in mind, I spent the next couple hours doing research and preparing my pretext. I learned quite a bit about the German historicism architecture of the 19th century and of course about the famous architect himself.

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The next morning I approached my target. Rather than ringing a doorbell and trying to gain access through the intercom, I choose to linger around the house and initially take pictures from the outside during a period in which I assumed people would be entering the estate to commence work. I planned to approach the first person I saw, tell them my cover story and hope to gain full access to the estate without raising suspicion. After all, I was just there to take a couple of pictures of the building itself. At this point, luck was on my side. The first person I encountered turned out to be the owner of the villa, who was in fact a direct descendant of the famous German architect that had built the place. This gentleman was so excited that a young professor wanted to use his estate as an example in class, that he happily invited me inside and allowed me to take as many pictures as I wanted. I received a complete tour, inside and out. I was able to take pictures of mailboxes inside the villa, have a peak into the office spaces and he told me about the current tenants, as well as answering my questions.  During this phase, I used all the architectural terminology I had learned to keep my cover upright.

In the end, I did not find any direct trace of the company I was looking for, nor was any office space for rent or any tenant moving out. However, I did see and take pictures of the internal mailbox belonging to the investment management company. This mailbox listed around 15 additional company names. Subsequent research linked one of those companies to the CEO of my actual target company and this proved to be a starting point for a whole network of letterbox companies.

That is the story of how I became Theodore Evelyn ‘Ted’ Mosby for a day and of course I did not use that name for my character. When I was a child, I remember my grandmother complaining about how harmful TV was and that what I watched was useless in real life. This one time, I guess I proved her wrong.

(By the way: No need in geolocating the villa in picture, it’s not the one from the actual case. However, it does look very similar)

Matthias Wilson / 09.01.2019

Image: CC BY 2.0 @HaPe_Gera (image cropped)

Covert Operations in a Digital World

Even spies leave behind a digital footprint. Through social media profiles and various leaks they can be identified and their clandestine activities exposed. In the digital age it takes more time and effort to conceal covert operations, requiring new approaches as early as during their recruiting.

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The recent uncovering of Russian GRU agents accused with the attempt to poison former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, as well as the exposure of Saudi Arabian spies in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi clearly show the problems intelligence services are facing when conducting covert operations.

Investigate journalists, such as the Bellingcat team, were able to identify the suspected culprits, often using crowdsourcing to do so. These two examples have proven how effective and timely the wisdom of the crowd can be. Another reason for the great results achieved in these online investigations, is the fact that the contributors to each investigation were highly motivated: they did not make these findings because they had to; they wanted to unravel the mysteries surrounding aforementioned cases.

Both times, blatant mistakes made by the operatives left a paper trail to follow, ultimately leading to the identification of several members of Russian and Saudi intelligence services. Not accounting for the various slipups, the main problem is that all culprits do work for their nation’s government and/or intelligence services and this was too transparent. The GRU operatives had addresses registered to known GRU locations, one of the Saudi operatives is seen in pictures where he appears to belong to the close protection team accompanying Saudi crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman on travels. These are just two examples showing links between the individuals and their governments.

The question remains, how an intelligence service can conduct covert operations that actually remain covert. One of the most obvious solutions to counter this problem is minimizing an operatives’ digital presence. This can be achieved fairly easy. Covert operatives should stay away from social media and press coverage. However, an old IT-saying states: “There is no patch for human stupidity.” Due to this, there will always be a margin of error, undisciplined individuals making exactly the mistakes leading to their public exposure. Massive CCTV coverage is causing another problem. It is impossible to travel nowadays without being filmed or photographed. As soon as these pictures of individuals are published in news and on social media, crowdsourcing kicks in. Maybe this individual was seen entering  a government building, maybe a former government co-worker recognizes him. Although the former co-worker should probably keep this information to himself rather than risking legal consequences (many have signed some form of non-disclosure agreement), this does not stop it from happening. Again, human error stands in the way.  In conclusion, intelligence services should try to rule out human error as much as possible. Regular screenings on intelligence employees aimed at searching for compromising information online could help counter these exposure threats in a timely manner. Another approach would be to decrease the amount of people who actually know of the covert operative. One radical, yet most likely successful approach could be keeping covert operatives away from government entities.

Let me elaborate on this. As soon as an individual enlists within a government entity and becomes part of this system, bureaucracy takes its toll and the individual is listed in numerous databases for mainly administrative reasons, also increasing the number of people who know of his existence. Travel expenses, payment processes and even journeys to known government sites leave plenty of breadcrumbs to follow and to identify someone as a government employee. In many countries, once you are on the government’s payroll, it is highly unlikely you will ever leave the comfort of having this government job and the benefits that come with it.

What if a covert operative never actually worked for the government?

The scenario I am about to explain might sound like it is from a Hollywood movie script, but it might be the only feasible way to conduct future covert operations. It all starts with proper recruiting. Identifying suitable candidates will be challenging and I will not discuss what traits are essential to become a perfect spy. Although former military members might be the first choice, their military service might be what uncovers them in the future. Let us look at the following fictional career:

A young, fit 18-year-old named James appears at a police or military recruiting office and expresses interest in an intelligence, investigation and/or special forces career. He achieves outstanding results in the following assessment center. These results are noted by the intelligence service, upon which they approach the potential recruit. Of course, intensive screenings are conducted beforehand and at no point is he invited to official government sites. All contacts are conducted by a dedicated handler. The used modus operandi is basically the same one used when acquiring HUMINT sources.

James receives an offer to work for the intelligence service but not in the intelligence service. He receives a scholarship to study political science at a renowned university, earning a degree which will provide the basis for his future civilian career. The scholarship is payed for by a complex system of front companies, eventually ending in some sort of charity. During his studies, James uses the semester breaks or long weekends to train the many skills needed for his covert intelligence service job. Officially, he is on long backpack tours around the world or other types of vacations. This training method takes much longer and is conducted individually at inconspicuous sites. However, after 3-4 years of part-time training and smaller operations during his university sojourn, James should be able to conduct covert operations.

After his studies, James receives a job in a worldwide consulting company. Of course, some strings were pulled in the background to enable and promote his civilian career. From time to time, James has to oversee projects in other cities or countries. This is the cover needed to enable worldwide travel to conduct covert intelligence operations. These projects could actually originate from government entities and thus fit to the intelligence operation.

After a certain time as a covert operative, James is removed from the operational line of duty. The compensation for his intelligence work could then be a non-covert job within the intelligence service (or another related government entity) or a severance pay.

This description is very short and is lacking many of the challenging details. I would like to point out a couple of interesting aspects to why this concept might actually be worth the effort:

  • The recruit could be dismissed at any time during the training program without major consequences. Other than his handlers, he does not have deep insight into the intelligence service, its locations or operations.
  • Providing a college education and kickstarting a promising civilian career, as well as offering an interesting field of work in the intelligence sector should prove extremely motivational.
  • The civilian career, when guided by the intelligence service, would deliver the best cover story for operations.
  • Failed operations could be denied easier by government entities. In this case, a statement like the recent Saudi “rogue operative theory”would pass easier.

Even though the ratio of supporting intelligence personnel assigned exclusively to such an external covert operative is higher than compared to the amount of supporting staff for regular intelligence employees, the external covert operative in total has less exposure to intelligence personnel. Regarding training, financial and operational planning, everything could be kept in a smaller yet highly professional scale.

Who knows, maybe these techniques are already in use by some intelligence services worldwide. That is probably the reason we never hear about it. Maybe the person sitting next to you on the plane is not just the business traveler he pretends to be.

Matthias Wilson / 24.10.2018