White House fails to make case that Russian hackers tampered with election
US issued JAR billed itself as an indictment that would prove Russian involvement.
by Dan Goodin, published on Ars Technica, on December 30, 2016
Talk about disappointments. The US government’s much-anticipated analysis of Russian-sponsored hacking operations provides almost none of the promised evidence linking them to breaches that the Obama administration claims were orchestrated in an attempt to interfere with the 2016 presidential election.
The 13-page report, which was jointly published Thursday by the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, billed itself as an indictment of sorts that would finally lay out the intelligence community’s case that Russian government operatives carried out hacks on the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and Clinton Campaign Chief John Podesta and leaked much of the resulting material. While security companies in the private sector have said for months the hacking campaign was the work of people working for the Russian government, anonymous people tied to the leaks have claimed they are lone wolves. Many independent security experts said there was little way to know the true origins of the attacks.
Sadly, the JAR, as the Joint Analysis Report is called, does little to end the debate. Instead of providing smoking guns that the Russian government was behind specific hacks, it largely restates previous private-sector claims without providing any support for their validity. Even worse, it provides an effective bait and switch by promising newly declassified intelligence into Russian hackers’ “tradecraft and techniques” and instead delivering generic methods carried out by just about all state-sponsored hacking groups.
“This ultimately seems like a very rushed report put together by multiple teams working different data sets and motivations,” Robert M. Lee, CEO and Founder of the security company Dragos, wrote in a critique published Friday. “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.”
The sloppiness, Lee noted, included the report’s conflation of Russian hacking groups APT28 and APT29—also known as CozyBear, Sandworm, Sednit, and Sofacy, among others—with malware names such as BlackEnergy and Havex, and even hacking capabilities such as “Powershell Backdoor.” The mix up of such basic classifications does little to inspire confidence that the report was carefully or methodically prepared. And that only sows more reasons for President elect Donald Trump and his supporters to cast doubt on the intelligence community’s analysis on a matter that, if true, poses a major national security threat.
The writers showed a similar lack of rigor when publishing so-called indicators of compromise, which security practitioners use to detect if a network has been breached by a specific group or piece of malware. As Errata Security CEO Rob Graham pointed out in a blog post, one of the signatures detects the presence of “PAS TOOL WEB KIT,” a tool that’s widely used by literally hundreds, and possibly thousands, of hackers in Russia and Ukraine, most of whom are otherwise unaffiliated and have no connection to the Russian government.
“In other words, these rules can be a reflection of the fact the government has excellent information for attribution,” Graham wrote. “Or, it could be a reflection that they’ve got only weak bits and pieces. It’s impossible for us outsiders to tell.”
“Both foolish and baseless”
Security consultant Jeffrey Carr also cast doubt on claims that attacks that hit the Democratic National Committee could only have originated from Russian-sponsored hackers because they relied on the same malware that also breached Germany’s Bundestag and French TV network TV5Monde. Proponents of this theory, including the CrowdStrike researchers who analyzed the Democratic National Committee’s hacked network, argue that the pattern strongly implicates Russia because no other actor would have the combined motivation and resources to hack the same targets. But as Carr pointed out, the full source code for the X-Agent implant that has long been associated with APT28 was independently obtained by researchers from antivirus provider Eset.
“If ESET could do it, so can others,” Carr wrote. “It is both foolish and baseless to claim, as CrowdStrike does, that X-Agent is used solely by the Russian government when the source code is there for anyone to find and use at will.”
The doubts raised by Lee, Graham, and Carr underscore the difficulty members of the US intelligence community face when taking findings out of the highly secretive channels they normally populate and putting them into the public domain. Indeed, the Joint Analysis Report makes no mention of the Democratic party or even the Democratic National Committee. The lack of specifics and vagueness about exactly how the DHS and FBI have determined Russian involvement in the hacks leaves the report sounding more like innuendo than a carefully crafted indictment.
The intelligence community has found itself in this position before, including in attributing a highly destructive attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment in 2014 to North Korea. In fairness, the reticence in both cases is likely justified by the interest in protecting sources and methods used to detect such attacks. And as Lee was quick to note, strong technical evidence is likely to be included in reports to Congress that later may be declassified. Still, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Thursday’s Joint Analysis Report provides almost no new evidence to support the Obama Administration’s claims Russia attempted to interfere with the US electoral process. Absent something more, the increasingly bitter debate may rage on indefinitely.