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"Shadow Brokers" Data Obtained From Insider: Flashpoint

New evidence uncovered by researchers after the group calling itself “Shadow Brokers” made available some new files reinforces the theory that the exploits and tools were obtained from a rogue insider and not by hacking NSA systems.

In mid-August, The Shadow Brokers leaked 300 Mb of firewall exploits, implants and tools, claiming that the files had been obtained from the NSA-linked Equation Group. The threat actor launched an all-pay auction in hopes of making a serious profit for a second batch of files that included exploits, vulnerabilities, RATs and data collection tools.

When that plan failed, the group launched a crowdfunding campaign with the goal of raising 10,000 bitcoins. Since that plan failed as well, Shadow Brokers recently announced the decision to sell the exploits directly. The entire batch costs 1,000 bitcoins, but individual exploits can also be acquired for between 1 and 100 bitcoins.

Researchers at threat intelligence firm Flashpoint have analyzed the screenshots and other files made available by Shadow Brokers when they announced their latest offer.

The investigation revealed that the files were likely stolen in July 2013, but the threat actor modified data and timestamps, possibly in an effort to hinder analysis by researchers. The tools offered for sale contain documentation scripts from between 2005 and 2013, and they mainly focus on Linux and Unix exploitation.

The extensive use of Markdown, a lightweight markup language commonly used in code repositories, has led researchers to believe that the files have been copied from an internal system or a code repository, not obtained through remote access or from an external staging server.

Flashpoint has assessed with “medium confidence” that the information was likely obtained from a rogue insider. Some reports said Harold Martin, the NSA contractor arrested recently for theft of classified material, may be behind the Shadow Brokers. However, the group has been active even after Martin’s arrest.

“Insiders with access to sensitive information can cause extensive damage, as Edward Snowden proved in June 2013. While the timeline of events shows that this is not directly related to Snowden, the close proximity of events raises the question if there were multiple insiders acting independently during 2013,” explained Flashpoint researchers.

“Technical analysis of the available files calls into question the true motivation of The Shadow Brokers. If The Shadow Brokers were trying to make a profit, the exploits would have been offered shortly after July 2013, when the information would have been most valuable,” the experts noted.

Related: U.S. Spy Worker Stole 'Astonishing Quantity' of Data

Related: Over 840,000 Cisco Devices Affected by NSA-Linked Flaw

Related: Industry Reactions to Shadow Brokers Leak

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Eduard Kovacs (@EduardKovacs) is a contributing editor at SecurityWeek. He worked as a high school IT teacher for two years before starting a career in journalism as Softpedia’s security news reporter. Eduard holds a bachelor’s degree in industrial informatics and a master’s degree in computer techniques applied in electrical engineering.