hyperbolic AP story" by Bradley Klapper, Jack Gillum and Stephen Braun that had posted on the AP wire. (The same story has been posted in the Washington Post, US News & World Report and other top news sources.
The story begins with the opening paragraph:
Russia-linked hackers tried at least five times in August 2011 to trick Hillary Rodham Clinton into infecting her computer systems while she was secretary of state, according to newly released emails from the State Department.The New York Times version of the story is far more sensational (and far more incorrect) in their telling of the story. Given the victim of all this attention, you would have thought these stories were from Fox News! Here's NYT making up scary security-sounding stuff:
Still, the evidence that Mrs. Clinton's personal account had been on the receiving end of a "spear phishing" attempt, revealed in a batch of her emails released by the State Department on Wednesday, raises the same question the F.B.I. is trying to answer as it combs through the forensic evidence from the server that was once in Mrs. Clinton's basement.In fact, a disclaimer on the bottom of the NYT news story now reads:
A headline on Friday with an article about Hillary Rodham Clinton's email server overstated what is known about an investigation into the server's security. As the article correctly noted, Mrs. Clinton received spam email that was intended to place malware on her computer network; the investigation has not yet determined that the malware effort was successful.
What Elias did that apparently the AP reporters and the NYT reporters did NOT do was a simple Google search. If they had, they would have seen the story on this blog, dated August 17, 2011, with the headline New York City "Uniform Traffic Ticket" tops spammed malware. The image that accompanied that story, shown below, reveals why the email was turned over to the government:
As Politico suggests in their story Most Clinton spam messages likely deleted, the workers tasked with finding "work-related" emails to turn over probably started with a few simple rules like "turn over all the emails that are from .gov addresses" -- which would include this spam, which claimed to be from @nyc.gov.
The point of that CyberCrime & Doing Time blog post was to share that this was one of the highest volume spam campaigns we had seen that summer! Just in the UAB Spam Data Mine, we had received 11,000 copies of this email! Spear-Phishing, which the New York Times wrongly suggests happened here, is when an email message is personalized to target a particular high-wealth or high value target. If Hillary Clinton was targeted, so were about 11,000 mostly entirely fictitious people whose spam goes into the UAB Spam Data Mine, as well as a few hundred people who chose to share their emails with us!
What is ChepVil?It isn't a mystery at all. In fact, we have that documented in the blog post as well. The malware is not mysterious at all. It was part of a "pay-per-install" malware ring that was very popular at that time. When my lab at UAB reported the malware to VirusTotal, it was detected by 18 of 43 anti-virus programs, with both Microsoft and Sophos detecting the malware and calling it "Chepvil" (Microsoft called it "TrojanDownloader: Win32/Chepvil.N" while Sophos called it "Mal/ChepVil-A" - we were using the name "FraudLoad" for this malware at that time). You can see that August 17, 2011 VirusTotal report as it looked the day we reported it. (And you can see in the comment there, also from that day, that we explained the source of the malware and gave a link back to our blog post.)
ChepVil is a type of malware that was heavily based on the BredoLab malware, although by August 2011, the BredoLab original author was already in jail. Armenian programmer, Georgy Avanesov, was arrested in October of 2010 when the Dutch High Tech Crime Team police seized 143 servers located at LeaseWeb in the Netherlands that he used to control his world-wide spamming operations. At the time of his arrest, BredoLab was infecting 3 million computer per month and being used to send approximately 3.6 billion spam messages per day. Despite this massive seizure, because his source code was already known by other malware criminals, the attacks quickly resumed following his arrest.
The August 17, 2011 version of this malware made a connection back to the Russian domain name sfkdhjnsfjg.ru, (associated with BredoLab, according to Sophos, see for example this Sophos report from August 4, 2011.)
We reported malware communicating to that server to the Microsoft Malware Protection Center on August 11, 2011 -- pointing out that it was hosted on the IP address 22.214.171.124, one of several IP addresses on that same netblock that took turns hosting sfkdhjnsfjg.ru during August 2011, all hosted in Mykolayiv, Ukraine. The first time we saw this family of malware communicating with that server was in a big campaign imitating the FBI on May 5, 2011. The same malware family pretended to be the United Parcel Service on June 9, 2011, sending my lab at UAB more than 54,000 copies of the malware. We produced a map of the computers that sent us both the May 5 FBI spam and the June 9 UPS spam and shared it with law enforcement at that time:
The point is - it wasn't "targeted" and it wasn't "spear-phishing" and it isn't a "mystery" about how it came to be sent to Mrs. Clinton. This wasn't a clever Russian master mind sitting in his evil lair dreaming of taking over the State Department. One of the millions of spam bots that were part of this network (or actually probably FIVE of them) asked the Command & Control server "Who shall I spam next?" and happened to draw Mrs. Clinton's email address.
But What COULD the Malware Do?In August of 2011, the primary thing that Chepvil did was deliver "Fake Anti-Virus" software. That's it. The malware would connect to the server and ask "What additional malware would you like to infect me with?" The server would then see who was currently paying the highest commission to have their malware installed, and whether the daily quota for installing that additional malware had already been fulfilled, and install whatever it was told to install.
In August of 2011 - the only thing we saw Chepvil install was Fake Anti-Virus, and a near cousin "Fake System Alert". So, *IF* Mrs. Clinton had actually been infected by this malware, it would have caused a pop-up animation to play, claiming she was infected with dozens of nasty viruses, and that she needed to pay the criminals $59 to get rid of the malware. None of that is true -- the malware is actually just "ScareWare" -- intended to irritate you with pop-up warnings about being infected until you finally give up and pay the "license fee" or have the malware professionally removed from your PC.
The Daily Malware ReportOlivia Foust Vining (now at PhishLabs, Hi Olivia!) was the student malware analyst in my lab who brought this malware to my attention that day in her "Daily Malware Report" (a research project sponsored by UPS!) By the end of her shift, we had actually seen 45,377 copies of the malware! Her report gave every 15 minute breakdowns of how many copies we received during the morning hours.
count | mbox -------+--------------------- 326 | 2011-08-17 03:30:00 264 | 2011-08-17 03:45:00 1880 | 2011-08-17 04:00:00 756 | 2011-08-17 04:15:00 1930 | 2011-08-17 04:30:00 2608 | 2011-08-17 04:45:00 5982 | 2011-08-17 05:00:00 4364 | 2011-08-17 05:15:00 3544 | 2011-08-17 05:30:00 2418 | 2011-08-17 05:45:00 2262 | 2011-08-17 06:00:00 999 | 2011-08-17 06:15:00 870 | 2011-08-17 06:30:00 972 | 2011-08-17 06:45:00 643 | 2011-08-17 07:00:00 277 | 2011-08-17 07:15:00 354 | 2011-08-17 07:30:00 200 | 2011-08-17 07:45:00 4571 | 2011-08-17 08:00:00 3974 | 2011-08-17 08:15:00 3109 | 2011-08-17 08:30:00 2047 | 2011-08-17 08:45:00 1617 | 2011-08-17 09:00:00 (23 rows) For comparison, here is the count of the other high malware volumes for that day: count | md5_hex -------+---------------------------------- 45377 | 1c2b06a9fbbea641ae09529e52f29b96 <= the "Uniform traffic ticket" malware 3484 | e7b48c4421a68740dfd321dade6fd5e6 <= "End of July Statement" malware 2627 | c1f67a7542359397544bd0af0b546166 <= "Your credit card has been blocked" malware 1021 | d22eadfda41fcbeb692c600c97d10ff5 <= "Money Transfer Information" malware
But how did Spammers learn Mrs. Clinton's email address?There are four primary ways that spammers gather email addresses.
The first is specialized software programs that scour the web looking for email addresses on websites. One of the richest sources of these is actually "archives" of large email lists. When email lists provide web access to their history, many do so publicly, allowing these scraping tools to learn the email addresses of every person mentioned on the mailing list. Spammers also JOIN tons of mailing lists to be able to gather the email addresses posted there.
Data dumps are another rich source of email addresses. Do you recall, for example, the Adobe breach in 2013 when 38 million people who had ever used an email address to register for the free download of Adobe reader or any other Adobe product had their email addresses publicly revealed? Such events are great days for the spammer community!
Next, we have malware on other people's computers. Many malware programs have as one "module" code that will scan a computer for email addresses. If even ONE of Hillary's regular correspondents became infected with malware, her email address would have been discovered that way.
Lastly, we have SMTP harvesters. These programs scan for mail servers, enumerate the domains served by that server, and then begin asking "do you deliver email for firstname.lastname@example.org? amos@? ann@? ... zach@?" The more intense of these servers will ask for every single letter and number combination, until it has a complete list of the "known" email addresses for the given domain.
So . . . it isn't surprising at all that even "secret" email addresses receive spam.
Thanks, Foreign Policy, for getting it right!I was pleasantly surprised by how well Elias Groll handled the details on this story. He quickly identified the scare-mongering going on over at the AP, and reached out for the facts. Obviously what I shared above is far too much technical detail for the readers of FP, but I do want to commend the level-headed reporting in their story:
Clinton's Private Emails Show Aides Worried About the Security of Her Correspondence