COMSEC Lessons from the Underworld

COMSEC Lessons from the Underworld

As Huge Tech’s capacity for espionage goes beyond even the deep state’s, how do the experts fly under the radar?

Anybody who has waded through the Snowden revelations, or the Vault 7 leaks, will most likely deal with mobile devices with a healthy degree of care. And rightly so. The general public record shows that spies stand out at utilizing mobile phones to conduct monitoring and spread propaganda The incidence of such programs is accelerating as tools of the trade multiply. The ramifications are unsettling.

While the National Security Agency was found guilty of prohibited monitoring, a minimum of there’s some semblance of a main structure in location to govern its actions. Big tech, on the other hand, is subject to far fewer legal restrictions here in the United States. What’s more, foreign spies run inside our borders with the specific approval of their own federal governments. As far as intelligence services abroad are concerned, the entire population of the United States is fair game. Provided the depth and breadth of the monitoring abilities arrayed against them, do typical American citizens stand a chance of safeguarding themselves? The answer to this concern can be discovered by traversing the far corners of the underworld, a scene where communication security (COMSEC) is vital and errors can be deadly.

Trust What You Control

In spite of these threats of using a mobile phone, groups of individuals still need to communicate and technology does use an edge. How does the underworld address the risk of exposure? History informs that there has been a shift towards equipment and facilities which is more directly under their control. This tenet typically manifests itself in DIY interactions systems.

For example, there are service providers who sell specially modified gadgets and host their own servers. A maverick business named Encrochat acts as an instructive case research study. Encrochat used custom-made Android phones which had their microphones, GPS, and video camera physically got rid of. The phones shipped with pre-installed encrypted messaging apps that routed traffic through the company’s overseas information.

You can probably guess how this story ended Law enforcement was successful in hacking the business’s user base en masse. At one point Encrochat’s leaders relayed a caution alert to users, conceding that “Due to the level of elegance of the attack and the malware code, we can no longer ensure the security of your gadget.” More than 100 million messages were decrypted, leading to a wave of arrests covering five nations.

To strengthen their defenses, criminal groups can avoid the middleman entirely and run their own in-house systems. The Mexican cartels, for instance, have been known to spend millions of dollars to develop nationwide encrypted real-time interaction networks Although these networks do supply more autonomy, devoted facilities is also conspicuous. As soon as digital infrastructure has been identified it can be methodically assaulted.

This is exactly how the FBI nailed Joaquín Guzmán, the former boss of the Sinaloa Cartel. The feds merely determined who Guzmán employed to build his network and they leaned on him until he spent the system’s file encryption passcodes. Why waste the time asking the NSA to decipher foreign traffic when you can oblige an insider to hand over the secrets to the kingdom? This is understood in business as “rubber-hose cryptanalysis.”

One way around this vulnerability is to utilize a setup that’s strictly short-term. Pablo Escobar, the late boss of the Medellin drug cartel in Columbia, wager his life on this practice. For months on end he avoided capture by utilizing a radio telephone to hold short discussions while driving around disguised as a cabby. The moving transmissions that blipped in and out of existence showed tough to trace. When police lastly did capture him, it was due to the fact that Escobar slipped up. He phoned lasting over 3 minutes from a repaired location. One slip is all it took.

A retired intelligence analyst offers the following insight: “Anything that emits an electro-magnetic signal can and will be targeted.” What this means is that groups with higher security requirements may need to ignore innovation altogether and go old-school. Dealing with an enemy that possesses a world-class home-field advantage, the very best option might be to leave the field and force watchers onto terrain where their automation and economies of scale don’t mean as much. This is why ISIS depends on couriers who don’t bring electronic devices.

Finally, in the annals of espionage there is one “hard target” who stands head and shoulders above the rest, a guy who, to this day, frequently stymies America’s most skilled spies by surrounding himself with the intelligence equivalent of a great void: Kim Jong-un of North Korea. At one point President Obama mentioned that he would have “targeted the North Korean management” with a military strike but that getting the needed info to do so was difficult.

Ernst Blofeld, consume your heart out.

Apply Anti-Forensics

Streams of bytes are continuously being exchanged between mobile phones, users, and their instant environment. It’s smart to restrict the info that you provide a smart device, limit the details that it reveals to its environments, and scrutinize the details which you take in. Recall how wardens in the motion picture Silence of the Lambs kept Dr. Lecter locked away the majority of the time. And when they did engage with him they thoroughly controlled the parameters of the conversation. In the domain of anti-forensics this is referred to as information source elimination

An extreme expression of this method would be to pull out the battery of a smart phone and stick everything into a Faraday bag. This particular tactic offered the NSA suits Iraq when a known target took his mobile phone totally apart, making it extremely challenging to follow him. Spies eventually got him by monitoring his other half’s mobile phone. Thus imparting an important lesson: it’s not just your cellular phone that’s a risk, it’s everyone else’s too. Put another way: just in a nation like North Korea might there be “great voids,” due to the fact that just a nation like North Korea has the needed stranglehold on communication.

Another issue with going cold turkey is that the lack of transmission might, in and of itself, set off alarms. In the Xinjiang area of China, anybody who abruptly stops utilizing their smart phone and goes “off grid” is flagged as meriting additional examination. Abnormalities work for discovering hazards in a big population. The authorities start by gathering loads of information and defining analytical standards of behavior. They scan their operating environment for people who breach those baselines. The recent ascension of big data and artificial intelligence in nations like China has actually allowed significance advances to this end.

The Syrian jihadist who led the November 2015 Paris attacks evaded security services through clever application of the anti-forensic strategy of information fabrication Particularly he effectively created a whole series of fake baselines by giving his cellphones and account credentials to partners who used them to maintain a consistent level of online activity. To further muddy the water, the jihadist maintained radio silence for long periods, utilized face-to-face meetings, and coded hand written notes. This demonstrates both anti-forensic data concealment and data transformation When he did interact digitally, he did so utilizing expendable devices which were used as soon as and after that got rid of to damage forensic proof.

Granted, the average user might not wish to invest the time and energy to produce standards. They can, nevertheless, probably still come up with modest windows of opportunity in their daily routines. Someone who works a regular 9-to-5 task can choose to leave from house during the early hours of the early morning, leaving the mobile device back on the coffee table where it typically sits overnight.

A Bitter Pill

The fate of numerous terrorists and crime managers hints that there is no silver bullet. Anybody who uses guarantees concerning COMSEC is either a fool, a scam artist selling snake oil, or a spy attempting to bait a trap Security is not an item or a branding mechanism. It’s a procedure. One that requires consistency, discipline, and sacrifice. The idea that there’s an app that will enable you to have your cake and eat it too is a sweet-sounding lie originating from Silicon Valley. The bitter pill of COMSEC is that autonomy can not be bought. Nor is it hassle-free. Attaining greater levels of assurance implies faithfully practicing anti-forensics by keeping sensitive information streams scarce, extremely tough to recognize, and even more difficult to analyze. Through using ephemeral out-of-band channels that function within existing patterns of activity, raising the expense of detection and analysis to unsustainable levels. Even state-sponsored companies have their limitations.

Bill Blunden is an independent private investigator focusing on information security, anti-forensics, and institutional analysis. He is the author of a number of books, consisting of The Rootkit Arsenal and Behold a Pale Farce: Cyberwar, Danger Inflation, and the Malware-Industrial Complex Costs is the lead investigator at Below Gotham Labs.

Learn More