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Saturday, 10 February 2018 10:28

US spies in secret bid to recover stolen NSA files Featured

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American intelligence agencies have been making an undercover effort to recover from Russian operatives material stolen from the NSA and, in part, exposed on the Web by a group known as the Shadow Brokers, a report claims.

The Russian individual who has been negotiating, through an American intermediary, had also offered the US spies a tranche of files relating to US President Donald Trump and alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, The Intercept reported.

Top US investigative journalist James Risen wrote that secret communication channels had been opened over the last year between US spies and the Russian operatives.

The Shadow Brokers first surfaced in August 2016, offering for sale hacking tools which were said to have been pillaged from the Equation Group, an outfit which has long been suspected to have NSA links.

In January 2017, the Brokers offered a number of Windows exploits from the NSA for sale. When there appeared to be no takers, the group then dumped these exploits on the Web in April 2017.

Risen wrote that the contacts took place in Germany, beginning in early 2017. Eventually, a person who is said to represent at least some part of the Russian intelligence services, agreed to sell the stolen NSA material to the US spies – and offered some Trump-related information as well.

The Intercept story said the CIA had been approached for comment but declined, while the NSA did not respond immediately.

Risen said these communication channels were distinct from other, more political channels, and were aimed only at getting back the stolen exploits.

Many details of the story were hazy, Risen noted, pointing out that many of those involved were uncertain as to the exact state of play. Whether the stolen NSA documents had been recovered to any extent was unknown.

He wrote that it was also unclear whether the Russians who were involved in the communications were private individuals or acting on behalf of Moscow.

The existence of this clandestine channel was said to have caused rifts between CIA and NSA operatives, because the CIA, which is now headed by Mike Pompeo, a Trump appointee, was unwilling to be involved in any operation that involved the possible obtaining of Trump-related material.

Risen wrote that the CIA had, at times, been serious about regaining the stolen material to the extent that they had transported cash to the agency's Berlin station to go through with the deal.

Given the CIA's ambivalence, Risen said the NSA had taken the lead with a view to primarily obtaining the material stolen from their agency.

There has been speculation about the identity of the Shadow Brokers and who leaked NSA material to them. Risen does not provide any information about the link between the Brokers and the Russians he writes abouit. Nor is there any information as to how the Russians obtained the NSA material.

Much information which has emerged in the American media around this story has turned out to be dubious – for example, former Washington Post employee Brian Krebs had to take down a story he wrote last year in which he claimed that a man with a Russian name could be the one who leaked the NSA exploits to the Brokers.

Krebs was fed the information by a Washington DC-based information security firm, InGuardians. Krebs did not offer an explanation for his takedown apart from a buried paragraph at the end of another yarn about the arrest of a Vietnamese-American NSA contractor on charges of taking masses of NSA material home.

There have also been attempts in the US media to draw a link between the Russian security company Kaspersky Lab and the leak of the NSA files.

Risen gives a detailed account of how the secret communication channel was initiated and the way in which things progressed. The story is well worth a careful read.

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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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