U.S. officials believe that the mistake of one NSA employee allowed Russian hackers to obtain top secret NSA hacking tools, according to reports.
A Russian intelligence front calling itself Shadow Brokers says that it hacked the NSA, while selling its cutting edge espionage malware to the highest bidder, Reuters reports. The NSA uses malware to spy on network gear that most government agencies and companies rely on to conduct business.
Intelligence officials say the employee acknowledged his mistake to the agency, but could not confirm that he may have left the backdoor open intentionally. Authorities cautioned that this particular employee’s mistake may have just been one in a series of mistakes by other NSA hackers, that led to the breach.
Before the revelation of the employee’s mistake cybersecurity experts feared the leak revealed a Kremlin mole inside the NSA. Dave Aitel, a former NSA research scientist, told Paul Szoldra of Business Insider that the top-secret malware was likely stolen from the NSA on a USB stick smuggled out of the building.
Publicly releasing valuable NSA malware makes little sense, Szoldra believes. Hackers routinely sell illegally obtained information, but go to lengths to keep their hacks secret. The information they sell is only valuable when the hacked party isn’t aware they are vulnerable.
The hackers made a show of supposedly selling the information, but dumped several tidbits of the code for free. “The dumping is a tactic they’ve been developing for the last five years or so,” cybersecurity expert Jim Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said speaking of Russian intelligence agencies.
The nature of the information and the public release indicate the Kremlin is likely trying to embarrass the U.S. and NSA. The tactic exactly mimics Russia’s hack of the Democratic National Committee, and dissemination through Wikileaks. U.S. intelligence officials now consider Wikileaks a propaganda arm of Russian intelligence agencies.
Even NSA fugitive Edward Snowden speculated after the attack on Twitter about the Kremlin’s responsibility for the hack. “Circumstantial evidence and conventional wisdom indicates Russian responsibility,” Snowden stated. He continued that the leak was likely disseminated to allow foreign governments to prove the U.S. hacked its systems by tracing the released malware.
Former NSA employee and cybersecurity expert John Schindler characterized the leak as a “warning shot across the agency’s bow not to reveal too much of what it knows to the public about Russian cyber-espionage and covert action.” If the NSA released information definitively linking Russia to the DNC hack, Russia could counter with information which could equally embarrass the NSA.
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