My First Professional Social Engineering Job

Can you remember the first time you manipulated someone to give you information? The first time I used social engineering professionally to obtain information resulted in loads of pics of cool fighter aircraft.

This week my digital photo album made me aware of some pictures from a deployment in Afghanistan exactly 15 years ago and reminded me of one adventure I had while trying to obtain information on a specific air traffic control radar.

Why is this adventure still relevant to me so many years later? Well, back then I was in a Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) unit, but this task required some Human Intelligence (HUMINT) skills. Or, speaking in civilian terms: Social Engineering. It was actually the first time I had directly gathered information from a conversation with my intelligence target, rather than relying on communications being intercepted. While I had quite the experience stepping into other characters in my free time (these are stories more suitable for a night out), I had never before tried this in my professional career.

A lot has been said and written about successfully manipulating people to make them give you information or allow access to restricted areas. For me, the most important aspect is the ability to read other people’s emotions and sentiment towards oneself and to anticipate their reactions. I think it is much like a game of chess and whoever plans several steps ahead, will be in control. To achieve this, I have learned that it is important to have your counterpart feel comfortable and give him or her the feeling that they are in control of the situation at all times. Last but not least, you should always have a good cover story, or pretext. Instead of going on about the methodology of social engineering in theory, I would just like to share my adventure with you.

In January 2015, I was stationed in Kabul (Afghanistan) with an electronic warfare detachment. Our parent unit back in Germany was in charge of monitoring radar systems worldwide, as part of their Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) mission. They had a large database in which they gathered information on all types of radars. Not only those used by potential adversaries, but also from allied nations. One day our detachment was asked to travel to a nearby US airbase, because a new air traffic control radar was apparently installed there. If possible, we were to take a picture of this new system, which would then be uploaded to the database. This should be a simple task. Fluent in English, I was asked to join this “mission”. After driving for about an hour, we arrived at the airbase and soon noticed that there was no way to get a clean shot of the radar system. Of course, it was located on the flight line. I knew we couldn’t just ask to see that radar system, as itwould seem a little bit too suspicious, and I also knew that “sightseeing” tours of the aircraft were fairly common. There actually is a German word to describe this: Gefechtsfeldtourismus.

One of the guys with us was an old German air force sergeant major and I came up with a pretext that might enable access to the flight line. We walked up to the nearest security office at one of the gates and I stepped into character. I introduced ourselves as a German patrol, which just happened to visit this air base in order to go to the PX and that my sergeant major was command sergeant major of a German fighter squadron back home. Obviously, I couldn’t state we were part of an electronic warfare detachment. And as it was the sergeant major’s final deployment before retirement, we kindly requested to get him one last look some of some the aircraft. A plausible (and made up) pretext, a direct and firm request and most important: leading this conversation with a friendly and calm demeanor. After all, a smile can open doors.

Soon afterwards, a young A-10 pilot showed up and gave us a full flight line tour. We had achieved step one and gained access to the flight line. We spent the next half hour of so walking around, taking pictures and acting like tourists. Now step two: get some pictures of the radar and possibly some additional information on it. In order to achieve this goal, I switched characters. While I was very serious, yet calm and friendly, to get inside, I was now the kid in the candy store.

What’s that? Can I look at that? Gosh, that’s cool.

I wanted it to appear as if I had no idea what everything around me was, so that when I asked questions it would seem like I was asking more out of personal interest than having a professional agenda.

Is that the control tower? I bet you have a great view from up there!

This got us into the control tower. It was manned by two civilian contractors who never really received any visitors. After all, most people would go have a look at the aircraft. Again, I was the kid in the candy store, asking many questions. The guys felt flattered that someone was interested in their work, they felt like they had the upper hand and ultimately shared a lot of information. I pointed to the radar.

What’s that green thing with the revolving dish?

From there on, I got a full briefing on my actual target. Frequencies, ranges, current issues and some more technical gibberish. Lastly, a couple of close-up pics as well. While many of you may think this was just a fun adventure, it was actually hard work. I had to memorize what I had heard and thus stay concentrated while remaining in character. I couldn’t take notes and I couldn’t record anything. I think this is one of the most challenging aspects of any social engineering attempt. Memorizing new information, while trying keep your pretext in mind.

After one and half hours the tour was finished. Personally, I got some awesome pictures of the aircraft, Professionally, I accomplished the mission. The information I had collected and the close-up pictures of the radar system were reported to our parent unit and they were quite surprised.

How did you get all this?

I just asked friendly 😊

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Matthias Wilson / 14.01.2020

The Impact of OSINT on Christmas

Proper intelligence is vital to prepare military and law enforcement operations or to provide information to political and business leadership prior to decision making. However, these are not the only people relying on good intelligence to get the job done. I had the honor of interviewing a very special person on his views of intelligence and how his organization utilizes it for one of the most challenging tasks known to mankind.

Sir, it is such an honor to have you here. Tell us a little about yourself. What exactly is your job and how does it involve intelligence work?

I go by many names, but please just call me Santa. I am in charge of a large organization tasked with bringing joy and fun to children worldwide on Christmas Eve. While I’m pretty sure you all know what I do during the Christmas night, not many people know what happens prior to this.

My organization and I have roughly 24 hours to deliver presents to children who deserve them. In order to accomplish this, a lot of planning is necessary and this planning is based on the information I receive from an intelligence agency within my organization. In Santa’s Secret Service, or S3, we mainly conduct GEOINT along with OSINT to make sure everything runs smooth on that one special night. Oh, and don’t confuse us with the Amazon web service.

Santa, while most of my readers are acquainted with terms such as GEOINT and OSINT, could you please explain what they are and possibly provide a use case from your organization.

Sure. I only have a limited timeframe to make sure I deliver everything to the right address. The route I take has to be carefully planned. The number of children on this world is steadily growing, more deliveries leave less room for mistkes. Even though my sleigh travels at an incredible speed…

How fast and how does that work?

I’m afraid that is classified. In order to properly plan the route, I rely on precise satellite imagery and maps. Imagery and maps from search engine providers are not up to date and commercial satellite imagery is not detailed enough. Keep in mind, my team has to figure out the best way into a chimney. We need a resolution of less than 0.3m to do so. Before Christmas, my sleigh is outfitted with an ultra high resolution imaging system and flies several sorties. While the actual collection of the imagery does not take that long, creating maps and the final route based on this is a bit more time-consuming. The whole process I just described is referred to as geospatial intelligence, or GEOINT.

Wow, that alone is probably a large amount of data collected each year. How do you process such massive amounts of data?

We have our own server infrastructure at S3. Located in vicinity of the North Pole, our energy consumption is lower than usual, because we have a natural cooling system.

 What happens after you have mapped the world?

I forgot to mention one thing. In order to plan the route, we need to know who will receive a delivery. Luckily, I have information on the address of each child from a classified source. But, does this child even deserve anything? We have to figure out who was naughty and nice. A lot of this is done through open source intelligence, or OSINT.

While we could use classic signals intelligence (SIGINT) to tap into communications and try to answer the question who is naughty or nice, we have found that OSINT provides the best “bang for the buck”. S3 has a very large team of OSINTers, who mainly monitor social media activities.

What exactly is your team looking into?

My OSINTers start off looking into profiles of the children, but not only to see how they behave. Depending on the region they live in, the platforms they use will differ. From Ask.fm to Weibo, there are many differnt sources to look at. We have seen TikTok blow up over the past months, but we also still obtain a lot of information from “older” platforms such as Facebook and Pinterest. These platforms also provide leads on the interests of our targeted subjects, which enables my organization to match them with the perfect present. We not only look at the children, but also monitor profiles of their family and friends, since relevant information is hidden here as well. As you can see, this is all a very deep intrusion into personal privacy. Therefore, we have very strict rules on how to handle this data, a massive auditing and compliance system and constant trainings for my team. If you thought GDPR was challenging, you wouldn’t want to know how much effort we put into protecting the privacy of our subjects!

Many children nowadays are active in closed communications, such as messengers, or they have restricted public access to their acounts by changing their privacy settings. How do you cope with this?

There are two different approaches we can take here. The first one is what you would call virtual HUMINT, or VUMINT. We try to place someone within a closed chat group using a false persona. For example, a group of friends has a WhatsApp channel with 20 participants. Using OSINT, we create a sock puppet credible enough to be invited into this group. In cases in which this works, we then can then instantly monitor 20 people. Of course, such actions are subject to much stricter rules and regulations that normal OSINT and are not performed often.

The second approach would be a classic computer network operation, or “hacking” an account. This is very rarely done and the methods and techniques are highly classified.

What about children who don’t have access to modern communications?

In this case, we rely on classic human intelligence, or HUMINT. Throughout the world, we have a network of sources directly providing us information. A lot of this is hearsay, so we try to confirm information with other sources before processing it. This actually also applies to data won through OSINT.

However, I would like to point out that at the end of the day we will never gather everything on everyone. Have you ever wondered why a spoiled and misbehaved child you knew received a nice present anyway? No matter how much effort we put into intelligence collection, there will always be a delta between what information is out there and which information we have obtained. I think that is the nature of intelligence work in general.

Circling back to OSINT, how does S3 ensure that they are up to date on new tools and techniques?

We do OSINT to enable OSINT. Of course, we follow #OSINT on Twitter and we also have someone monitoring osint.team as well as various blogs such as osintcurio.us and your blog.

Wow, I’m honored to have made it on S3’s reading list. I know you are quite busy, so we can wrap it up here. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Merry Christmas, happy OSINTing and I wish you all the best in 2020!

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Matthias Wilson / 22.12.2019

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

The Golden Age of OSINT is over

Change is coming and it will greatly affect the way OSINT investigations are conducted in the future. Who knows, in a couple of years completely different skill sets might be needed to handle online investigations. Are we prepared?

In the OSINT community we constantly have to deal with changes. New tools and new platforms are always on the rise, just as old platforms and tools become obsolete in an instant. Staying updated is a continuous challenge, much more than just one person can handle. Luckily, most members of the OSINT community are willing to share any new discoveries, especially on Twitter. Therefore, following the hashtag #OSINT on Twitter, as well as numerous OSINT-related accounts, is the first and most important step when working in any area that requires OSINT skills.

There is always a lot of chatter on the future of OSINT and unlike many others, I do not think that Python is the future of OSINT. Does OSINT even have a future? Let us fast forward to the year 2022 and have a look at online investigations then.

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January 2022:

Over the past years, more and more people have been made aware of their own data privacy and this has massively changed the way they use online services. What started with the release of the ‘Snowden documents’ in 2013 and continued with massive data breaches, such as the Cambridge Analytica case made public in 2018, has led to the desire to share less information publicly. This development basically made Facebook obsolete and new platforms have arisen in its place. Although Facebook still exists, the data it contains only has historic value and cannot be used for current investigations, much like Google+ or MySpace a couple of years back. Even though Facebook tried to turn the tide by changing privacy settings, the damage done by many the data breaches was too much to convince users to maintain a presence on the platform. Nowadays, social media is more anonymous than before, modern platforms do not require or request real names and information shared is not automatically distributed publicly. For OSINT investigations, this means that a real name might not provide a starting point to search for someone online. The main starting point is now an obscured username, which is hopefully unique enough to be used in investigations. How can we identify a username, if we just have a real name to start with?

In modern social media this is almost impossible. Unlike the old Facebook, which gave us a display name and an account name (mostly based on the real name), today’s social media does not reveal the real name. So, either you know the username to start with or you are pretty much screwed. Of course, another possibility is searching ‘historic’ sites that have linked usernames to real names, such as Facebook or maybe even Twitter. There are also commercial databases and people search engines that offer these services for a small fee. However, if someone was OPSEC-savvy before 2019, he or she most likely will not be found online easily in 2022. Even with a unique username, the information that can be obtained from social networks is marginal, since everyone is well aware of their own data privacy. If you are not a part of your targets network, you will not see anything. No updates, no pictures. Even likes and other forms of indirect communication between accounts will not be publicly disclosed. This rendered many of the Python tools developed over the past years obsolete, as the data that can be scraped is mostly useless.

With that said, how does OSINT look today? In general, we have shifted from the passive gathering of information to more active means of collecting data. I call it virtual HUMINT (VUMINT). The objective of VUMINT is to infiltrate target networks during investigations in order to see information that is not openly available and possibly even interact with the target on a ‘personal’ level. Whereas sock puppets in 2019 where mainly used to gain access to social networks in general, sock pockets nowadays are needed to gain access to specific profiles of our targets and their closed networks. Now, more than ever, it is important to have lifelike and tailor-made sock puppets to achieve this objective. A blog post from 2019 is still useful and gives a good description of sock puppets and how they should be setup: The OSINT Puppeteer. Building a sock puppet for a specific account is not something that is done in a short period time, so receiving results through VUMINT takes much longer than information gathering through passive OSINT. Naturally, there is no guarantee that a target will add you to his or her network, no matter how good the sock puppet is. This means you might invest a lot of time in the creation of a sock puppet without achieving any notable results. In certain ways, it is very similar to a target-centric phishing campaign.

Another challenge in modern OSINT is the vast dissemination of unverified or untrue information on the internet. Everyone can post everything online in an instant and everyone wants to have news in a heartbeat, making it harder for press and media to thoroughly research events before releasing information. Media and press institutes that fact-check and verify first are losing the battle against quick-releasing competitors. The customer’s demand for instant information over reliable information has flooded the internet with rumors and ‘fake news’. During investigations, more and more time is spent conducting OSINT research on the credibility of data found on specific targets. Finding the original source of the information, the so-called Patient Zero, assessing its trustworthiness and then determining how and if the information can be used in our investigations. Today, it is not the actual collection of open source data that is the key, but the actual evaluation of this material.

One thing that has not changed, is the fact that the global corporations behind online platforms, and thus intelligence services, still have the possibility to use all the personal data on users however they desire. While OSINT collection and intelligence has become more challenging for everyone outside of these corporations and intelligence services, it is easier than ever for them to make use of personal data. Whether it is tailor-made advertising or extensive profiling through intelligence services, our data and of course ourselves are now more transparent than ever. There is no hiding from global corporations or intelligence services anymore if we want to use online services. Luckily (or unfortunately), the personal data is not sold or leaked as much as it was a couple years ago, limiting the benefit of commercial databases.

In 2022, the Golden Age of OSINT in investigations is over. The trends that started around 2015, e.g. automating OSINT, do not work anymore. Instead of learning how to code, maybe we should focus on social engineering a bit more. A good OSINT investigator in 2022, first and foremost, needs to be a good intelligence analyst and have some strong Human Intelligence skills.

Thank goodness it’s still 2019!

Matthias Wilson / 04.01.2019

The Nexus Analyst: Understanding your Customer’s Requirements

Nexus is ‘an important connection between the parts of a system’, according to the dictionary. In an intelligence environment, OSINT has the same function. Another example of how OSINT can provide important leads for HUMINT and SIGINT in Afghanistan.

Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) is all about perseverance and following bread crumbs that lead to key findings. To be honest, you won’t always find the smoking gun and in some cases you might miss it. That’s one thing I have learned: No matter how hard you look, you are always likely to miss out on something. That is why the OSINT community on Twitter is so important. New tools and techniques are shared there and help broaden your own set of skills on a daily basis. Another important lesson, is to always have clearly defined objectives, the so-called Key Intelligence Questions (KIQ), when conducting OSINT research. What specifically is your intelligence customer asking for? This means you have to understand the ultimate goal and your customer’s mindset to a certain extent.

My concept called Interdisciplinary Intelligence Preparation of Operations (I2PO) relies on OSINT to support other intelligence collection types (ICT), such as Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) or Human Intelligence (HUMINT), and vice versa. Therefore, the OSINT analyst must understand the specific requirements for each ICT. If you deliver a phone number or email address to a HUMINTer, he might give you puzzled looks. Again, I would like to demonstrate my point with an OSINT case that might easily happen this way in military intelligence and intelligence services. In a previous blog post, we had HUMINT information as a starting point for OSINT. This time, we have a couple of Key Intelligence Questions.

Imagine we are forward deployed OSINT analysts in Afghanistan. We not only provide information on the general situation in our area of operations, but also support the adjacent HUMINT and SIGINT teams. Our HUMINTers want to know a little more about the family ties of their intelligence targets and the networks surrounding these people (KIQ 1). The SIGINTer just needs some selectors such as phone number and email addresses, which he could task in his SIGINT systems (KIQ 2). One of the intelligence targets happens to be Mohammad Atta Noor, a key power broker in Northern Afghanistan.

We start out with a simple Google search and we soon find an interesting site containing bios of Afghan VIPs: afghan.bios.info. The entry on Mohammad Atta Noor is quite detailed and also reveals the name of one his sons, Tariq Noor.

Next up we conduct a Google search on Tariq Noor in combination with the name of his father. This leads us to Tariq’s Twitter account, where he is pictured together with his father.

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Twitter also suggests further accounts to follow, one of them being Khalid Noor. It turns out that this is another son of Mohammad Atta Noor.

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So far, we have names and pictures of two sons. Knowing that Mohammad Atta Noor has even more children, we could continue our search and identify the other children, while trying to obtain pictures and more data on them. However, let us focus on Tariq and Khalid first. As their father is a successful businessman, it is likely that his sons have businesses of their own, or are maybe even connected to their father’s companies.

To check this, we again have a look at the Afghan company register (www.acbrip.gov.af). Since we cannot search for individuals here, we assume that Tariq and Khalid have companies named after themselves. This search within the Afghan company register produces good results. The first result when looking for Khalid Noor even gives us the phone number of Mohammad Atta Noor and a bit of his family history with the names of Mohammad Atta Noor’s father and grandfather.

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Mohammad Atta Noor is the president of the Khalid Noor LTD and states his father’s name is Haji Noor Mohammad and his grandfather’s name is Mirza Mohammad Gul. In Arabic and Central Asian countries, this information is valuable when distinguishing same-named persons. A look into the shareholders of this company reveal not only that Khalid is a shareholder, but also mentions other business partners (and their family history, as well as phone numbers). All this information helps build a network chart including the relevant family ties. This is the information our HUMINT team was looking for (KIQ 1). Of course, the phone numbers answer the Key Intelligence Question our SIGINT Team had (KIQ 2). A query for Tariq Noor produces similar results, including phone numbers of Tariq and his business partners.

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All in all, following OSINT bread crumbs led to amazing key findings. Now this information can be used for HUMINT operations, when trying to infiltrate the networks around Mohammad Atta Noor and, as mentioned, also to task SIGINT operations. A perfect example of I2PO!

In conclusion, this way to work makes me refer to an OSINT analyst within military and intelligence services as a ‘Nexus Analyst’, an analyst in between ICTs. Someone that knows what HUMINT or SIGINT really need to conduct their missions successfully and who takes this into account when browsing the web.

Matthias Wilson / 28.11.2018

I2PO – From HUMINT to OSINT to SIGINT

Sometimes even seemingly irrelevant information leads to key findings. In this case, the mere existence of a company led to unraveling the phone number of the son of Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum.

Interdisciplinary Intelligence Preparation of Operations, I2PO, is a concept on combining the different types of intelligence collection to achieve the best results. In the following example, I will demonstrate a perfect case of an intelligence workflow that starts with Human Intelligence (HUMINT), utilizes Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) and lastly provides leads for Signals Intelligence (SIGINT).

Imagine you are part of a SIGINT team, dedicated to Afghan politics. While reading some HUMINT reporting, you come across a report regarding Batur Dostum, the son of the Vice President of Afghanistan, Abdul Rashid Dostum. The report informs about Batur’s businesses in Northern Afghanistan. One of the businesses mentioned is Batur Mustafa LTD.

This provides a starting point for OSINT research. While googling this company will not produce any notable results, a query within in the Afghan Central Business Registry (ACBR) might lead to some useful information. Luckily, the database in is English, so we will not have to use any translation tools. The ACBR database does not enable you to search for individuals, but we have the company name.

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The result of this query gives us plenty of relevant data. Not only do we receive information on the company itself, but also on its shareholders and their personal data. This includes names, father names, phone numbers and residencies.

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This is our target! Batur Dostum, the son of Abdul Rashid Dostum. He owns 50% of the company shares and his phone number is listed. The next step would be to task his phone number in our SIGINT collection. While we are at it, we should also task the phone number of the other shareholder and vice president of the company.

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It is highly likely that this phone number might also produce decent SIGINT results.

As you can see, a piece of information that might seem irrelevant to start with led to a key finding and the possibility to enable further intelligence operations.

Matthias Wilson / 19.11.2018