NSA Denies Everything About Latest Intercept Leak, Including Denying Something That Was Never Claimed

from the let's-play-word-games-with-the-NSA dept

The recent leaks published at Glenn Greenwald's new home, The Intercept, detailed the NSA's spread of malware around the world, with a stated goal of sabotaging "millions" of computers. As was noted then, the NSA hadn't issued a comment. The GCHQ, named as a co-conspirator, had already commented, delivering the usual spiel about legality, oversight and directives -- a word salad that has pretty much replaced "no comment" in the intelligence world.

The NSA has now issued a formal statement on the leaks, denying everything -- including something that wasn't even alleged. In what has become the new "no comment" on the NSA side, the words "appropriate," "lawful" and "legitimate" are trotted out, along with the now de rigueur accusations that everything printed (including, apparently, its own internal documents) is false.

Recent media reports that allege NSA has infected millions of computers around the world with malware, and that NSA is impersonating U.S. social media or other websites, are inaccurate. NSA uses its technical capabilities only to support lawful and appropriate foreign intelligence operations, all of which must be carried out in strict accordance with its authorities. Technical capability must be understood within the legal, policy, and operational context within which the capability must be employed.

NSA's authorities require that its foreign intelligence operations support valid national security requirements, protect the legitimate privacy interests of all persons, and be as tailored as feasible. NSA does not use its technical capabilities to impersonate U.S. company websites. Nor does NSA target any user of global Internet services without appropriate legal authority. Reports of indiscriminate computer exploitation operations are simply false.
First off, for the NSA to claim that loading up "millions" of computers with malware is somehow targeted (and not "indiscriminate") is laughable. As for its "national security directive," it made a mockery of that when it proudly announced in its documents that "we hunt sys admins." Targeting telco and ISP systems administrators goes well outside the bounds of "national security." These people aren't suspected terrorists. They're just people inconveniently placed between the NSA and its goal of "collecting it all."

Last, but not least, the NSA plays semantic games to deny an accusation that was never made, calling to mind Clapper's denial of a conveniently horrendous translation of a French article on its spying efforts there.
NSA does not use its technical capabilities to impersonate U.S. company websites.
This "denial" refers to this portion of The Intercept's article.
In some cases the NSA has masqueraded as a fake Facebook server, using the social media site as a launching pad to infect a target’s computer and exfiltrate files from a hard drive...

In one man-on-the-side technique, codenamed QUANTUMHAND, the agency disguises itself as a fake Facebook server. When a target attempts to log in to the social media site, the NSA transmits malicious data packets that trick the target’s computer into thinking they are being sent from the real Facebook. By concealing its malware within what looks like an ordinary Facebook page, the NSA is able to hack into the targeted computer and covertly siphon out data from its hard drive.
The NSA's own documents say that QUANTUMHAND "exploits the computer of a target that uses Facebook." The man-on-the-side attack impersonates a server, not the site itself. The NSA denies impersonating sites, but that's not what The Intercept said or what its own documents state. This animated explanation, using the NSA's Powerpoint presentation, shows what the attack does -- it tips the TURBINE servers, which then send the malware payload before the Facebook servers can respond. To the end user, it looks as though Facebook is just running slowly.


When the NSA says it doesn't impersonate sites, it truly doesn't. It injects malware by beating Facebook server response time. It doesn't serve up faux Facebook pages; it simply grabs the files and data from compromised computers. The exploit is almost wholly divorced from Facebook itself. The social media site is an opportunity for malware deployment, and the NSA doesn't need to impersonate a site to achieve its aims. This is the NSA maintaining deniability in the face of damning allegations -- claiming something was said that actually wasn't and resorting to (ultimately futile) attempts to portray journalists as somehow less trustworthy than the agency.


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  1. icon
    Matthew Cline (profile), 14 Mar 2014 @ 1:50pm

    As for its "national security directive," it made a mockery of that when it proudly announced in its documents that "we hunt sys admins."

    Well, heck, that's easy. Since the computers of the sys admins are just means to an ends, simply define "target" in a way that excludes anyone whose computers are compromised as a means to an end.

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