Home > Active Directory, Authentication, Hacking, Identity Theft, Privacy, Trust > A Review of the Grizzly Steppe (Russian Hacking) Report

A Review of the Grizzly Steppe (Russian Hacking) Report

 
I, like many, have heard the stories that the Russians hacked into sensitive applications/servers in an effort to compromise the US elections. That is a bold statement and if true, may justify the actions recently taken by the Obama administration. So it was with keen interest that I rushed to read the findings from the Joint Analysis Report (JAR-16-20296) between DHS and the FBI to see what evidence they had to substantiate these claims.

The full report may be found here:

grizzlysteppe
The report makes the following claims:

“This document provides technical details regarding the tools and infrastructure used by the Russian civilian and military intelligence Services (RIS) to compromise and exploit networks and endpoints associated with the U.S. election…”

“Previous JARs have not attributed malicious cyber activity to specific countries or threat actors. However, public attribution of these activities to RIS is supported by technical indicators from the U.S. Intelligence Community, DHS, FBI, the private sector, and other entities.”

 
Based on this information the US felt like it had the smoking gun and definitive proof of the following:

  • The Who – the Russians were behind the attack
  • The Why – to affect the US elections in order to guide the outcome

With this information in hand, I continued reading to now learn about:

  • The How – how the attacks were performed
  • The Proof – the evidence to substantiate Who, Why, and How

 
The report describes the “How” in a two pronged attack as follows:
 

Hack #1 – Casting the Phish Net…

 
Phishing
 
1. A general spearphishing attack was sent to more than 1,000 people which included (in addition to others) several people from the U.S. Government.
 
Note: The number “1,000” is very specific so it seems like the government has some knowledge of the recipients – but they stop short of specifying if that 1,000 was directed at a particular party or not. I would think that would be important to know if the purpose of the attack was to affect the US election.
 
2. The attack led to one person from a particular U.S. political party falling prey to the attack and opening an attachment containing malware. This led to a chain of events where the malware was able to:
 

  • Establish persistence on a “political party system”
  • “Escalate privileges”
  • “Enumerate Active Directory accounts”
  • “Exfiltrate email from several accounts through encrypted connections back through operational infrastructure”

 
Note: This all sounds really impressive, but what does it all mean? If you remove all the jargon (enumerate, exfiltrate, etc.) and put this in layman’s terms, it sounds like the following occurred:
 

  • Someone installed malware on their PC when they opened a file that they shouldn’t have
  • Somehow the malware was able to gain privileged access to Active Directory
  • The malware was able to perform a search against Active Directory
  • The results of the search returned several email accounts

 

With this information on mind, there are a few things I am curious about.

 
First, the malware is only able to impersonate the user on the operating system on which it was installed. I’m not sure how a “normal user” can have escalated privileges in Active Directory unless that user is an administrator with escalated privileges (which brings up a whole different conversation about administrators knowing better). So I am curious how the malware was able to “escalate privileges” on its own.
 
Second, if the user (hence the malware) was not an administrator and they were able to perform an unauthorized search against Active Directory, then that indicates that Active Directory authorization and/or limitations were not configured properly. It has been my experience that Active Directory is (by default) pretty well locked down. Is it possible that the default settings were “relaxed” a bit and therefore may have opened up a hole?
 
Finally, would I really need “escalated privileges” just to troll email accounts? Couldn’t I simply scan the Outlook address book to obtain this information? It seems like the approach described in the report would take a lot of effort to code and would have a limited chance of success. Wouldn’t the malware have to land on an administrator’s computer for this approach to work?
 
3. Either way, the end result was that APT29 was able to get a list of email addresses from Active Directory.
 
Fast forward almost a year later (summer 2015 to spring 2016) and this takes us to the second part of our story.
 

Hack #2 – Hooking the Phish…

 
spear_phishing
1. In the second hack, a targeted spearphishing attack was launched against the same political party that was compromised in the first attack.
 
Note: It should be noted that while the first attach was general (casting a net if you will), the second attack was targeted at a certain set of people using specific information to more easily trick those people. While the report doesn’t specifically say this, it is assumed that the attack targeted those email addresses that were obtained from the first attack.
 
Does this indicate that the political party in question was targeted because the end goal was to affect the election? If so, then this attack was planned almost a year in advance when we really didn’t have a clear picture as to who the candidates would be from either party. Were the Russians hedging their bets in case a certain party (or a certain candidate) was found to be leading? It seems more plausible that the second attack was launched more against a certain set of users more as a target of opportunity than anything else.
 
2. This spearphishing attack tricked multiple people into “changing their passwords through a fake webmail domain hosted by APT28”.
 
3. Upon initial login, APT28 was able to obtain the “real” credentials of users associated with the political party in question.
 
4. With these credentials in hand, APT28 was able to log into the real email server and access content (emails, attachments, etc.). The report goes on to say that this information was subsequently “leaked to the press and publicly disclosed.”
 

Where’s the Smoking Gun?

 
While the report is somewhat interesting, it does not provide the “smoking gun” that was anticipated. The report does provide a list of 48 hacker names of which APT28 and APT29 are included. The title of the table is “Reported Russian Military and Civilian Intelligence Services (RIS)” but there is nothing more than that to introduce the table and tell us anything about the names contained in the table. Am I supposed to jump to the conclusion that because APT28 and APT29 are listed that this is definitive proof that:
 

  • they are the ones behind these attacks
  • no one else has attempted to use these names as their hacking alias
  • they specifically targeted a particular political party
  • their intent was to affect the US election
  • and most importantly, they are “state sponsored”

 
The last item is one of the most important as the administration has chosen to take action against Russia (the state) as if they sanctioned the attacks. If that is true then the need for a smoking gun becomes infinitely more important and that information is simply not provided. Going back to a statement made early on in the report,
 

“Previous JARs have not attributed malicious cyber activity to specific countries or threat actors. However, public attribution of these activities to RIS is supported by technical indicators from the U.S. Intelligence Community, DHS, FBI, the private sector, and other entities.”

 
the government has made it clear that it is stepping outside of normal protocol by publicly naming the attacker in the JAR. But they don’t provide any information to back up their claim. Nor is there anything specifically that indicates that this had anything to do with an attempt to affect the outcome of the US election; in fact, the information presented may lead one to believe the contrary.
 
In general, the report lacks information and forces us to accept the government’s assertion of the Who (the Russians) and the Why (to affect the election) without providing the Proof. Maybe the government has more information that they are not sharing, but to ask me to simply trust without verifying is asking me to trust too much.

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