Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The Possibly Russian Fingerprints on the Shadow Brokers' Trick or Treat Package

Whether a result of clumsiness of a bored operator or deliberate subterfuge, there are clues that the supposed NSA front Equation Group operated out of Russia. The question remains:  What were they doing that for?

As you've probably heard already, an outfit calling themselves the Shadow Brokers published a list of what is supposedly hosts that had been compromised by the NSA and subsequently used as staging servers for whatever the NSA wanted to throw at their adversaries, with some other shady outfit known as the Equation Group actually doing the cyber-cyber thing.

The Shadow Brokers' message with links to their material is available in a number of places, among them this Medium article, which seems to be simply the text of the file message5.txt.asc, which is one of three items at both download locations.

The "list" is actually a compressed and encrypted tar archive (familiar to Unix users everywhere), which expands to a directory structure where the first level is the directory trickortreat, with two subdirectories intonation and pitchimpair, both of which in turn have numerous subdirectories with names that follow the convention


that is, a fully qualified domain name for a host, three underscore characters and the corresponding IP version four address in the common four octet decimal notation. Each of these directories then have small text files that appear to be data about a specific program or feature.

For example, the directory intonation/hakuba.janis.or.jp___210.232.42.3 contains only the file jackladder, with the content

INTONATION___hakuba.janis.or.jp___210.232.42.3___20000822-135045() {
    ## JACKLADDER Version:2.0 OS:sparc-sun-solaris2.6

I take this to mean that INTONATION, whatever that is, contacted the host hakuba.janis.or.jp at the IP address, and peeking at the next line which gives us the OS version, it's my educated guess that the last string of the first line is the date in YYYYMMDD and the patch level for the operating system recorded.

The second line, or the body of the curly braces ({}) part if you prefer, tells us the JACKLADDER version and the operating system.

Other subdirectories have several files that appear to follow roughly the same format, and some record other parameters such as trickortreat/intonation/msgstore2.pldtprv.net___192.168.120.3, where the file orangutan

INTONATION___msgstore2.pldtprv.net___192.168.120.3___20021114-120148() {
    ## ORANGUTAN Version:1.4 OS:sparc-sun-solaris2.8
    export CONFIG_KEYS="81733968 69bb0b91 8b6400d6"

also appears to record the content of an environment variable, possibly one that the ORANGUTAN software needs to see exported to its environment in order to work as intended on that host.

Basically, this looks like what a fairly well automated system would leave behind while performing a number of operations targeted at various hosts, in a directory structure where humans will be able to find what they need to look at quickly. In my line of work, it's fairly common for such things as system logs to be collected in file system structures much like what we see here.

For your convenience if you want to study the material yourself and can't really be bothered to figure out how to extract the clear text from the gpg encrypted archive, I've put the plaintext tar archive here and the extracted files here for you to browse at your own pace.

My initial plan when I downloaded and decrypted the material was to check whether any of the hostnames or IP addresses in this material matched any of the entries in my records, such as the Hail Mary Cloud cycle that targeted SSH servers or the more recent password guessing efforts aimed at POP3 mail servers.

But then I noticed while reading the analyses of other geeks who had gotten around to doing their thing that the lists of IP addresses all had in them some addresses that should not have been there at all.

The entire network was set aside way back in RFC1918 (February 1996) as one of several non-routeable ranges for private use in local area or campus networks. The way the world and IP version four works, if you have a local network at home or at work (even in large multinational enterprises), more likely than not your machines have addresses in one of these ranges:        -  (10/8 prefix)      -  (172.16/12 prefix)     - (192.168/16 prefix)

and something between those hosts and the Internet that does the network address translation (NAT) so all traffic from your network appears to come from a routable address.

Even on machines that have routeable addresses, it is not uncommon that one or more other interfaces are configured with RFC1918 addresses to pass internal but necessary traffic such as administrator logons, backups and other administrative tasks somewhere that does not interfere with the internet-facing production traffic.

Still, the Shadow Brokers' Trick or Treat package contains a handful of directories for hosts that only give internal, non-routable (RFC1918) addresses:


If your most convenient route to a machine to a specific machine is to an interface on that machine that has a local area network address, that is a strong indicator that you are working from that local network.

The first four hosts are in a Russian domain which is still operating, apparently out of Russia. The last domain, pldtprv.net, appears to be no longer active but I assume a diligent search will turn up clues about where they were based and when they were operating.
This could mean that the supposed NSA front Equation Group was actually operating from inside Russia, or at the very least had establised a 'forward base' there which was so well connected (via virtual private networks (VPNs) or other means) to their home ground that the least costly route from wherever those scripts ran to one or more Russian hosts was via those machines' internal administrative or backup interfaces.

I repeat, this, that private, nonrouteable IP addresses appear in a place you would expect to find public and routeable addresses, is a strong indicator that the Equation Group ran their activities from a local network in Russia, likely rubbing shoulders with whoever operates the mos.ru domain.

This is also a sign that whoever ran those scripts was a little careless about their routing at some point. But it could equally well mean that somebody, somewhere, is very adept at inserting clues that may in fact be false and misleading.

I probably will go forward with the comparison of this IP address and hostname hoard with my accumulated logs of less than desirable activity at some point. In the meantime I welcome your feedback on this story in comments or (if you don't want your name known and really only want me to paraphrase you in public) via email.

Good night and good luck.

Update 2016-11-02: Added the 'I repeat ...' paragraph to emphasize that finding private and nonrouteable addresses where you would otherwise expect find public and routeable ones is a strong clue that the perpetrators were operating from that local network. A surprising number of security professionals apparently miss that point.

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