How to Hack a Human

Cybersecurity

​Illustration by Boris Séméniako​​​

How to Hack a Human
 

​It all started innocuously with a Facebook friend request from an attractive woman named Mia Ash. Once her request was accepted, she struck up a conversation about various topics and showed interest in her new friend's work as a cybersecurity expert at one of the world's largest accounting firms.

Then, one day Mia shared her dream—to start her own company. She had one problem, though; she did not have a website and did not know how to create one. Surely her new friend could use his expertise to help her achieve her dreams by helping her make one?

Mia said she could send him some text to include on the new site. He agreed, and when he received a file from Mia he opened it—on his work computer. That simple act launched a malware attack against his company resulting in a significant compromise of sensitive data.

Mia was not a real person, but a care- fully crafted online persona created by a prolific group of Iranian hackers—known as Oilrig—to help this elaborate spear phishing operation succeed.

Due to his role in cybersecurity, the target was unlikely to have fallen for a standard phishing attack, or even a normal spear phishing operation. He was too well trained for that. But nobody had prepared him for a virtual honey trap, and he fell for the scheme without hesitation.

This case is a vivid reminder that when cybersecurity measures become difficult to penetrate by technical means, people become the weakest link in a cybersecurity system. It also illustrates how other intelligence tools can be employed to help facilitate cyber espionage.

While many hackers are merely looking to exploit whatever they can for monetary gain, those engaging in cyber espionage are different. They are often either working directly for a state or large nonstate actor, or as a mercenary contracted by such an actor tasked with obtaining specific information.

This targeted information typically pertains to traditional espionage objectives, such as weapons systems specifications or the personal information of government employees—like that uncovered in the U.S. Office of Personnel Management hack.

The information can also be used to further nondefense-related economic objectives, such as China's research and design 863 program, which was created to boost innovation in high-tech sectors in China.

Given this distinction and context, it is important to understand that hacking operations are just one of the intelligence tools sophisticated cyber espionage actors possess. Hacking can frequently work in conjunction with other intelligence tools to make them more efficient.

Hacking into the social media accounts or cell phone of a person targeted for a human intelligence recruitment operation can provide a goldmine of information that can greatly assist those determining the best way to approach the target.

For instance, hacking into a defense contractor's email account could provide important information about the date, time, and place for the testing of a revolutionary new technology. This information could help an intelligence agency focus its satellite imagery, electronic surveillance, and other collection systems on the test site.

Conversely, intelligence tools can also be used to enable hacking operations. Simply put, if a sophisticated cyber espionage actor wants access to the information contained on a computer system badly enough, and cannot get in using traditional hacking methods, he or she will use other tools to get access to the targeted system. A recent case in Massachusetts illustrates this principle.

Medrobotics CEO Samuel Straface was leaving his office at about 7:30 p.m. one evening when he noticed a man sitting in a conference room in the medical technology company's secure area, working on what appeared to be three laptop computers.

Straface did not recognize the man as an employee or contractor, so he asked him what he was doing. The man replied that he had come to the conference room for a meeting with the company's European sales director. Straface informed him that the sales director had been out of the country for three weeks.

The man then said he was supposed to be meeting with Medrobotics' head of intellectual property. But Straface told him the department head did not have a meeting scheduled for that time.

Finally, the man claimed that he was there to meet the CEO. Straface then identified himself and more strongly confronted the intruder, who said he was Dong Liu—a lawyer doing patent work for a Chinese law firm. Liu showed Straface a LinkedIn profile that listed him as a senior partner and patent attorney with the law firm of Boss & Young.

Straface then called the police, who arrested Liu for trespassing and referred the case to the FBI. The Bureau then filed a criminal complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, charging Liu with one count of attempted theft of trade secrets and one count of attempted access to a computer without authorization. After his initial court appearance, Liu was ordered held pending trial.

Straface caught Liu while he was presumably attempting to hack into the company's Wi-Fi network. The password to the firm's guest network was posted on the wall in the conference room, and it is unclear how well it was isolated from the company's secure network. It was also unknown whether malware planted on the guest network could have affected the rest of the company's information technology infrastructure.

The fact that the Chinese dispatched Liu from Canada to Massachusetts to conduct a black bag job—an age-old intelligence tactic to covertly gain access to a facility—indicates that it had not been able to obtain the information it desired remotely.

China had clear interest in Medrobotics' proprietary information. Straface told FBI agents that companies from China had been attempting to develop a relationship with the company for about 10 years, according to the FBI affidavit. Straface said he had met with Chinese individuals on about six occasions, but ultimately had no interest in pursuing business with the Chinese.

Straface also noted that he had always met these individuals in Boston, and had never invited them to his company's headquarters in Raynham, Massachusetts. This decision shows that Straface was aware of Chinese interest in his company's intellectual property and the intent to purloin it. It also shows that he consciously attempted to limit the risk by keeping the individuals away from his facilities. Yet, despite this, they still managed to come to the headquarters.

Black bag attacks are not the only traditional espionage tool that can be employed to help facilitate a cyberattack. Human intelligence approaches can also be used.

In traditional espionage operations, hostile intelligence agencies have always targeted code clerks and others with access to communications systems.

Computer hackers have also targeted humans. Since the dawn of their craft, social engineering—a form of human intelligence—has been widely employed by hackers, such as the Mia Ash virtual honey trap that was part of an elaborate and extended social engineering operation.

But not all honey traps are virtual. If a sophisticated actor wants access to a system badly enough, he can easily employ a physical honey trap—a very effective way to target members of an IT department to get information from a company's computer system. This is because many of the lowest paid employees at companies—the entry level IT staff—are given access to the company's most valuable information with few internal controls in place to ensure they don't misuse their privileges.

Using the human intelligence approaches of MICE (money, ideology, compromise, or ego), it would be easy to recruit a member of most IT departments to serve as a spy inside the corporation. Such an agent could be a one-time mass downloader, like Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden.

Or the agent could stay in place to serve as an advanced, persistent, internal threat. Most case officers prefer to have an agent who stays in place and provides information during a prolonged period of time, rather than a one-time event.

IT department personnel are not the only ones susceptible to such recruitment. There are a variety of ways a witting insider could help inject malware into a corporate system, while maintaining plausible deniability. Virtually any employee could be paid to provide his or her user ID and password, or to intentionally click on a phishing link or open a document that will launch malware into the corporate system.

An insider could also serve as a spotter agent within the company, pointing out potential targets for recruitment by directing his or her handler to employees with marital or financial issues, or an employee who is angry about being passed over for a promotion or choice assignment.

An inside source could also be valuable in helping design tailored phishing attacks. For instance, knowing that Bob sends Janet a spreadsheet with production data every day, and using past examples of those emails to know how Bob addresses her, would help a hacker fabricate a convincing phishing email.

Insider threats are not limited only to the recruitment of current employees. There have been many examples of the Chinese and Russians recruiting young college students and directing them to apply for jobs at companies or research institutions in which they have an interest.

In 2014, for instance, the FBI released a 28-minute video about Glenn Duffie Shriver—an American student in Shanghai who was paid by Chinese intelligence officers and convicted of trying to acquire U.S. defense secrets. The video was designed to warn U.S. students studying abroad about efforts to recruit them for espionage efforts.

Because of the common emphasis on the cyber aspect of cyber espionage—and the almost total disregard for the role of other espionage tools in facilitating cyberattacks—cyber espionage is often considered to be an information security problem that only technical personnel can address.

But in the true sense of the term, cyber espionage is a much broader threat that can emanate from many different sources. Therefore, the problem must be addressed in a holistic manner.

Chief information security officers need to work hand-in-glove with chief security officers, human resources, legal counsel, and others if they hope to protect the companies and departments in their charge.

When confronted by the threat of sophisticated cyber espionage actors who have a wide variety of tools at their disposal, employees must become a crucial part of their employers' defenses as well.

Many companies provide cybersecurity training that includes warnings about hacking methods, like phishing and social engineering, but very few provide training on how to spot traditional espionage threats and tactics. This frequently leaves most workers ill prepared to guard themselves against such methods.

Ultimately, thwarting a sophisticated enemy equipped with a wide array of espionage tools will be possible only with a better informed and more coordinated effort on the part of the entire company. 

Sidebar: The Mice and Men Connection

 

The main espionage approaches that could be used to target an employee to provide information, network credentials, or to introduce malware can be explained using the KGB acronym of MICE.

M = Money. In many cases, this does equal cold, hard cash. But it can also include other gifts of financial value—travel, jewelry, vehicles, education, or jobs for family members. Historic examples of spies recruited using this hook include CIA officer Aldrich Ames and the Walker spy ring.

A recent example of a person recruited using this motivation was U.S. State Department employee Candace Claiborne, who the U.S. Department of Justice charged in March 2017 with receiving cash, electronics, and travel for herself from her Chinese Ministry of State Security handler, as well as free university education and housing for her son.

I = Ideology. This can include a person who has embraced an ideology such as communism, someone who rejects this ideology, or who otherwise opposes the actions and policies of his or her government.

Historical examples of this recruitment approach include the Cambridge five spy ring in the United Kingdom and the Rosenbergs, who stole nuclear weapons secrets for the Soviet Union while living in the United States.

One recent example of an ideologically motivated spy is Ana Montes, who was a senior U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency analyst recruited by the Cuban DGI, who appealed to her Puerto Rican heritage and U.S. policies toward Puerto Rico. Another ideologically motivated spy was Chelsea Manning, a U.S. Army private who stole thousands of classified documents and provided them to WikiLeaks.

C = Compromise. This can include a wide range of activities that can provide leverage over a person, such as affairs and other sexual indiscretions, black market currency transactions, and other illegal activity. It can also include other leverage that a government can use to place pressure on family members, like imprisoning them or threatening their livelihood.

Historic examples of this approach include U.S. Marine security guard Clayton Lonetree, who was snared by a Soviet sexual blackmail scheme—a honey trap—in Moscow, and FBI Special Agent James Smith who was compromised by a Chinese honey trap.

More recently, a Japanese foreign ministry communications officer hung himself in May 2004 after falling into a Chinese honey trap in Shanghai.

E = Ego. This approach often involves people who are disenchanted after being passed over for a promotion or choice assignment, those who believe they are smarter than everyone else and can get away with the crime, as well as those who do it for excitement.

Often, ego approaches involve one of the other elements, such as ego and money—"I deserve more money"—or ego and compromise—"I deserve a more attractive lover."

A recent example is the case of Boeing satellite engineer Gregory Justice, who passed stolen electronic files to an undercover FBI agent he believed was a Russian intelligence officer. While Justice took small sums of money for the information, he was primarily motivated by the excitement of being a spy like one of those in the television series The Americans, of which he was a fan.​


Scott Stewart is vice president of tactical analysis at Stratfor.com and lead analyst for Stratfor Threat Lens, a product that helps corporate security professionals identify, measure, and mitigate risks that emerging threats pose to their people, assets, and interests around the globe.