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Attacks/Breaches

FBI Informant Sabu Tied To Foreign Attacks

Report triggers questions about FBI's apparent use of a zero-day vulnerability, and whether campaign was designed to amass intelligence on foreign targets.

The former LulzSec leader "Sabu," working as an FBI informant, coordinated hundreds of online attacks against foreign websites throughout 2012, directing other hackers to steal everything from authentication credentials to bank records by exploiting a vulnerability in the Plesk website hosting control panel software.

Those claims came via The New York Times, which published a report Tuesday -- citing unreleased court documents and "interviews with people involved in the attacks" -- saying that Hector Xavier Monsegur, who operated online as Sabu, directed the hackers with whom he was working to upload stolen information and exfiltrated data to an FBI-controlled server.

Monsegur, a leading light in Anonymous and head of the hacktivist group known as LulzSec, was arrested by two FBI agents in June 2011. According to court documents, he immediately turned informant, soon pleaded guilty to numerous charges, and helped the bureau amass information that led to the arrests in 2012 of multiple members of LulzSec and Anonymous. That information helped lead to the what an FBI official called the "dismantlement of the largest players" involved, who were arrested and charged with various hacking crimes.

Nearly three years later, Monsegur's cooperation with the government continues, and his sentencing has repeatedly been delayed by Department of Justice prosecutors "in light of the defendant's ongoing cooperation," according to court documents. Prosecutors have also said that Monsegur is monitored around the clock and restricted to using an FBI-provided computer that records everything he does.

As a result of his turning informant, many have accused Monsegur of having sold out his LulzSec comrades. But fellow LulzSec participant Jake "Topiary" Davis, a British national who was arrested in July 2011, served time in Britain, and has been released on parole, minimized Monsegur's role in helping authorities ultimately bust lawbreaking members of LulzSec and Anonymous. He cited "police intelligence" and "some silly mistakes," at least on his part. "Certainly everybody in the UK was caught through other means -- lots of IP tracing for example," Davis said this month in an ongoing Ask.fm question-and-answer session. "Several thousand pages of IRC chat logs were produced from Sabu, though they were roughly irrelevant in the UK case as we all plead guilty."

However, Davis has said that, though he handled PR for LulzSec, he purposefully declined Sabu's offers to hack specific websites. "One week I told Sabu that I had no intention of involving myself in any more crime -- organized by him -- and that I wanted to switch to helping the activist movement solely through art and writing. That same week my home was raided. It's nothing new, we were just another set of pawns in the FBI's strategy."

Anonymous protestors in 2008.(Source: Vincent Diamante via Flickr)
Anonymous protestors in 2008.
(Source: Vincent Diamante via Flickr)

But one of the men who didn't decline Sabu's hacking entreaties was Jeremy Hammond. "Sabu was used to build cases against a number of hackers, including myself," Hammond said in August 2013, alleging that he'd been entrapped by the FBI. "What many do not know is that Sabu was also used by his handlers to facilitate the hacking of targets of the government's choosing -- including numerous websites belonging to foreign governments."

Because Hammond pleaded guilty to one count of violating the contentious Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), tied to his masterminding the 2011 hack of Strategic Forecasting -- better known as Stratfor -- he wasn't able to publicly cite government records during his sentencing that might have demonstrated which sites he hacked.

Hammond is now under a protective order, imposed by the judge, limiting what he can say, but in his statement, he referred to having hacked foreign targets designated by Monsegur. "It is kind of funny that here they are sentencing me for hacking Stratfor, but at the same time as I was doing that, an FBI informant was suggesting to me foreign targets to hit. So you have to wonder how much they really care about protecting the security of websites."

Hammond has declined to detail which foreign websites he hacked. "After Stratfor, it was pretty much out of control in terms of targets we had access to," he told the NYT in an interview this month at the federal prison in Kentucky where he's serving a 10-year sentence, which is due to be followed by a three-year parole.

An FBI spokeswoman, reached Wednesday via email, declined to comment on Hammond's allegations. In fact, the FBI has long declined to comment on his case, as his supporters have noted. "The absence of denial by the government supports, rather than undercuts, what Jeremy said," Hammond attorney Margaret Ratner Kunstler said via email in August.

Some related documents had been released by the court, but only in heavily redacted form. But the NYT said it petitioned the court last year

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Mathew Schwartz served as the InformationWeek information security reporter from 2010 until mid-2014. View Full Bio

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SachinEE
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50%
SachinEE,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/26/2014 | 6:12:57 AM
Re: FBI Informant Sabu Tied To Foreign Attacks
Who would have thought an FBI informant would be responsible for foreign attacks? That should be the big question on our minds. This is not the first time something like this has happened. This is merely a security breach. This is so wrong and something needs to be done. His sentencing should not be delayed by the department of justice. People need answers and justice should prevail. He exploited the vulnerability of the Plesk website which is a federal offence.
securityaffairs
50%
50%
securityaffairs,
User Rank: Ninja
4/25/2014 | 12:14:01 PM
Re: Stranger things ...
Hi Lorna, you have to consider the timeline of events. Sabu initially was a true hacktivist, he changed side after the arrest for convenience.

Anyway US intelligence has tried to infiltrate Anonymous in the last years to predict its operations. At the same time government entities have discovered the possibility to exploit hacktivism actions to cover their cyber campaigns, or to address the rage of groups like Anonymous against strategic targets in foreign government networks.

 
Lorna Garey
50%
50%
Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Ninja
4/25/2014 | 11:32:12 AM
Re: Stranger things ...
Sure, I'm not questioning the efficacy of the strategy, I am questioning why an agency would also be looking to entrap and prosecute the people they are using to perform these attacks. What, they think someone treated that way is going to stay quiet?

These are not nickle and dime CIs that you can pump for infomation on drug deals or a string of break-ins, lock up when they no longer suit your needs, and expect that no one will hear about it.
securityaffairs
50%
50%
securityaffairs,
User Rank: Ninja
4/25/2014 | 3:28:22 AM
Re: Stranger things ...
As I have explained in my blog post
"The involvement of groups of hacktivists such as Anonymous has numerous advantage for a covert operation like low costs, no official liability for the attacks and the opportunity to exploit them in a diversionary tactic to hide more sophisticated attacks conducted by state-sponsored hackers.
 
Many other governments would use a similar strategy to attack its adversary in the cyberspace."
Lorna Garey
50%
50%
Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Ninja
4/24/2014 | 5:12:10 PM
Stranger things ...
This does seem like the million dollar question: "He has long questioned why the government was using hackers that it was trying to entrap to also hack into foreign websites." The suggestion being that the FBI figured it could just deny and stonewall, or just didn't give a crap. Certainly not beyond the realm of possibility.
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