Hacking News NSA Shadow Brokers leak mystery continues beyond case

Published on July 8th, 2019 📆 | 2481 Views ⚑

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NSA Shadow Brokers leak mystery continues beyond case

The Shadow Brokers may remain a complete mystery as the NSA leak is winding down with the group continuing to remain anonymous to the FBI.

Federal
agents descended on the suburban Maryland house with the flash and bang of a
stun grenade, blocked off the street and spent hours questioning the homeowner
about a theft of government documents that prosecutors would later
describe as
“breathtaking” in its scale.

The suspect, Harold
Martin, was a contractor for the National Security Agency. His arrest followed
news of a devastating disclosure of government hacking tools by a mysterious
internet group calling itself the Shadow Brokers. It seemed to some that the United
States might have found another Edward Snowden, who also had been a contractor
for the agency
.

“You’re a bad man. There’s
no way around that,” one law enforcement official conducting the raid told
Martin, court papers say. “You’re a bad man.”

home of harold thomas martin nsa raid for stolen documents
Home of Harold Thomas Martin III after NSA FBI raid.

Later this month, about
three years after that raid, the case against Martin is scheduled to be
resolved in Baltimore’s federal court. But the identity of the Shadow Brokers,
and whoever was responsible for a leak with extraordinary national security
implications, will remain a public mystery even as the case concludes.

Authorities have
established that Martin walked off with thousands of pages of secret documents
over a two-decade career in national security, most recently with the NSA,
whose headquarters is about 15 miles from his home in Glen Burnie, Maryland. He
pleaded guilty to a single count of willful retention of national defense
information and faces a nine-year prison sentence under a plea deal.

Investigators found in his
home and car detailed description of computer infrastructure and classified
technical operations in a raid that took place two weeks after the Shadow
Brokers surfaced online to advertise the sale of some of the NSA’s closely
guarded hacking tools. Yet authorities have never publicly linked Martin or
anyone else to the Shadow Brokers and the U.S. has not announced whether it
suspects government insiders, Russian intelligence or someone else entirely.

The question is important
because the U.S. believes North Korea and Russia relied on the stolen tools,
which provide the means to exploit software vulnerabilities in critical
infrastructure, in unleashing punishing global cyberattacks on businesses,
hospitals and cities. The release, which occurred while the NSA was already
under scrutiny because of Snowden’s 2013 disclosures, raised questions about the government’s ability to maintain secrets.

“It was extraordinarily
damaging, probably more damaging than Snowden,” cybersecurity expert Bruce
Schneier said of the Shadow Brokers leaks. “Those tools were a lot of money to
design and create.”

Yet none of that is likely
to be mentioned at Martin’s July 17 sentencing. The hearing instead will turn
on dramatically different depictions of the enigmatic Martin, a Navy veteran,
longtime government contractor — most recently at Booz Allen Hamilton — and
doctoral candidate at the time of his arrest.

Prosecutors allege Martin
jeopardized national security by bringing home reams of classified information
even as, they say, he once castigated colleagues as “clowns” for lax security
measures. Soon after his arrest, they cast aspersions on his character and
motives, citing a binge-drinking habit, his arsenal of unregistered weapons and
online communication in Russian and other languages.

The agents who searched
his house that August 2016 afternoon found a trove of documents in his car,
home and a dusty, unlocked shed. The 50 terabytes of information from 1996 to
2016 included personal details of government employees and “Top Secret” email
chains, handwritten notes describing the NSA’s classified computer
infrastructure, and descriptions of classified technical operations.

Defense lawyers paint him
as a compulsive hoarder whose quirky tendencies may have led him astray but who
never betrayed his country.

“What began as an effort
by Mr. Martin to be good at his job, to be better at his job, to be as good as
he could be, to see the whole picture at his job, became something more
complicated than that,” public defender James Wyda said at a 2016 detention
hearing. “It became a compulsion.

“This was not Spycraft
behavior,” he added. “This is not how a Russian spy or something like that
would ever conduct business.”

It’s unclear how Martin
came to the FBI’s attention, but a redacted court order from a judge suggests
agents may have been looking for a Shadow Brokers link when they obtained
search warrants for his Twitter account and property before the raid.

The December 2018 ruling
from U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett notes that the FBI was investigating
the online disclosure of stolen government property. It cites a Twitter message
from an account allegedly belonging to Martin — @HAL_999999999 — that requested
a meeting with someone whose name is blacked out and stated “shelf life, three
weeks.”

In a likely reference to
the Shadow Brokers disclosures, investigators said tweets from Martin’s account
were sent hours before stolen government records were advertised and posted
online. Investigators also alleged that Martin would have had access to the
same classified information as what appeared online.

The recipient of the
message is redacted, although Politico reported it went to the Moscow-based
cybersecurity firm Kaspersky Lab, which in turn notified the U.S. Kaspersky
declined to discuss the Martin case.

The roughly 20 officers
who stormed Martin’s home did so with dramatic force, arriving with a battering
ram and a “flash bang” device meant to cause temporary disorientation. State
troopers shut down the road as agents interrogated Martin for four hours.

Martin was never charged
with disclosing information and was accused only of unlawfully retaining
defense information. The Shadow Brokers, which two weeks before Martin’s arrest
surfaced on Twitter with the warning that it would auction off NSA hacking
tools online, continued trickling out disclosures after Martin was in custody,
a seeming indication that someone else may have been responsible.

Even so, his case
refocused public attention on repeated government failures to safeguard some of
the nation’s most highly classified information, with Martin one of several
contractors accused of mishandling or spilling government secrets. Most notable
is Snowden, a fellow Booz Allen contractor facing U.S. charges and living in
Russia.

The NSA has since done
more to protect its network and security and increased the monitoring of its
employees, said security and counterintelligence director Marlisa Smith.

“I won’t tell you we’ve
erased the risk of insider threat, it will never be down to zero, but we’ve
worked very hard to mitigate and minimize the risk,” Smith said.

Booz Allen scrambled to
respond to Martin’s arrest, hiring ex-FBI director Robert Mueller to
investigate. Since Martin’s arrest, the company said it has added policies to
improve its review process of employees at hiring and to ensure managers are
more in touch with their subordinates.

As for the mystery of who
or what is behind the Shadow Brokers, there’s little certainty that the
government will ever publicly resolve that lingering question, especially given
the classified nature of the theft and the embarrassment it caused the U.S.

“I don’t know if anybody
knows other than the Russians,” said former NSA computer scientist Dave Aitel.
“And we don’t even know if it’s the Russians. We don’t know at this point;
anything could be true.”

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