‘Shadow Brokers’ new NSA data leak: Is this about politics or money?

A manifesto by the Shadow Brokers group reads like a caricature of Russia's political grievances. 

NSA/Handout via Reuters
An undated aerial handout photo shows the National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters building in Fort Meade, Maryland.

The Shadow Brokers, a group whose August dump of apparent National Security Agency (NSA) spy tools rattled the cybersecurity community, says the new cache of files it published on Halloween reveals the identity of hundreds of organizations targeted by NSA hacks over more than a decade.

The files include more than 350 IP addresses and some 300 domain names that the group says were compromised during the 2000s by the Equation Group, the moniker for a group that many experts believe is actually the NSA. The addresses and domain names correspond to some 49 countries, ranging from US rivals like Iran, China, and Russia to traditional allies including Italy and Spain. And according to a manifesto from the Shadow Brokers published along with the files, some of the servers could have been used to launch other concealed attacks once compromised.

The Shadow Brokers don't appear to be motivated by national interests – attacking the NSA on behalf of Russia or China – as much as by money and ego, says some observers. 

In the Shadow Brokers’ manifesto, written in English but riddled with faux-Russian grammatical errors, the group fulminates against a laundry list of US institutions – including the elections, major media networks, and the CIA. And it cribs a phrase from Russian president Vladimir Putin in describing the elections as "free as in 'free beer,' " notes Vitali Kremez, a cybersecurity expert at Flashpoint.

"Overall, the group echoes Putin’s rhetoric, accusing the US of playing political games rather than addressing the internal issues concerned with its perceived double standards and flawed election process," writes Mr. Kremez.

After the August file dumps, no less than former NSA contractor Edward Snowden suggested that Russia could have been behind the leak. But the manifesto’s obvious echoes and the crude caricature of Russian-accented English seem to suggest a mockery of the US government’s claims of Russian meddling. And Kremez and other cybersecurity experts say the Shadow Brokers’ motives are mainly financial – they’re selling, for a cool $1 million, the “exploits” that allowed them to get the NSA spy tools back in August.

In a 2014 report, the RAND Corporation found that cybercrime markets had matured from a network of ego-driven cliques into the territory of highly organized, financially motivated cybercriminals, as The Christian Science Monitor reported last year:

The profits to be made from these markets are potentially greater than the illegal drug trade with little of the associated risks.

The sheer number of players, their geographic spread, and the increasing use of encryption technologies and anonymizing services such as Tor make it hard to get a handle on the true size and scope of the market. But what is evident is that they pose a growing threat to governments, businesses, and average Internet users.

“These markets are rapidly growing and maturing,” says Lillian Ablon, coauthor of the RAND report. “They are continuously innovating and are full of increasingly sophisticated people largely tied to traditional crime organizations.”

The latest leak also comes less than two weeks after the US government announced it would prosecute former NSA contractor Harold Thomas Martin for stealing dozens of hard drives’ worth of data. Mr. Martin’s August arrest stemmed from an investigation into the Shadow Brokers file dump that same month, notes Ars Technica, though it’s unclear whether investigators connect the allegations against the former contractor to the Shadow Brokers.

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