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What the LulzSec Bust Says About Cyber Criminal Investigations

In a recent high-profile bust, the FBI arrested five alleged leaders of the collective Anonymous and related hacking group LulzSec. Understandably, the majority of law enforcement, white hats, and journalists rejoiced at the FBI’s newfound cyber prowess. After months of embarrassment through denial of service attacks, major data leaks, and website defacements, it looked as though law enforcement and the federal government had finally won against the rising menace of cybercrime, alleged by FBI Director Robert Mueller to soon surpass terrorism as a national security concern. They had bested Sabu, the leader of LulzSec, so thoroughly that he joined their side and helped bring down the most dangerous men in cyberspace. Headlines declared that lawmen had finally brought order to the Wild Wild Web. Yet while I applaud what the FBI achieved  an adept operation, LulzSec wasn’t taken down by digital whiz kids, and certainly not by cybersecurity practitioners employed by the Bureau, but by old fashioned investigations and human intelligence.

The key to the entire bust was Hector Xavier Monsegur, better known under the hacking alias Sabu. Outside of data dump repository and hacker hangout Pasebin, Sabu first briefly entered the spotlight when he was arrested as the alleged leader of LulzSec in July. The cybersecurity crowd reacted with highly cautious excitement. Many did not believe that the FBI had managed to apprehend the real leader, LulzSec denied the news, and Anonymous gave their standard “we are legion” and “you can’t arrest an idea” responses to setbacks. Then, suddenly, there was nothing from either camp until Sabu reemerged several months later. Given the severity of the charges against him, this seemed to confirm that the FBI had been mistaken or exaggerated his importance.

In reality, Sabu actually was the major hacker that the FBI alleged. While LulzSec’s attacks were often basic, such as SQL injections and distributed denial of service and opponents have accused Anonymous of being “script kiddies” running premade attacks, Sabu’s skills were respected worldwide. He was recognized as the elite hacker of the group and had been hacking since 1999. This level of “street cred” proved invaluable for the FBI after he turned informant.

Sabu’s initial arrest, by a pair of FBI agents with bullet proof vests instead of laptops, had more to do with old fashioned sleuthing than hacking. Sabu was famous, but  also famously obnoxious. That, combined with the illegality and questionable morality of many of LilzSec’s attacks, earned him numerous enemies in the hacking community. Hackers like The Jester would post possible leads online, complete with evidence for the FBI to examine. While generating this information took some forensics skill, all the FBI had to do was develop sources like in any intelligence operation or investigation. If anything, collecting evidence against Monsegur was even simpler as it didn’t take a forensics lab to make sense of the clues, which were posted for everyone to see. Once the FBI had a lead, it was just a question of manpower and diligence. Monsegur eventually slipped and logged into a chat room without obscuring his IP address, allowing the FBI to find him.

The rest of the operation proved even more conventional. The FBI turned Monsegur into an informant not with computers but with simple leverage. A laundry list of charges meant that Monsegur could be imprisoned for over a century, and he was the guardian of two young children whom he gained custody over while their mother, his aunt, was in prison. If he went away, there would be nobody to raise them. After some good cop, bad cop, Monsegur began cooperating within the first 24 hours.

Monsegur was describes an ideal informant, working consistent 8-16 hour days for the FBI, gathering incriminating information from the hackers who looked up to him in chat rooms. He would even investigate attacks to tip law enforcement off before they took place to prevent or minimize the damage, and once used his influence to call off an embarrassing attack on the CIA. So that nobody knew who he was working for, he would give misleading online interviews to journalists while monitored by the FBI or, in some cases, the FBI would give the interviews in his name.

In the aftermath, the government gained what looked like a stunning victory over an elusive foe and a boost to its cyber credentials when in reality, the operation that beheaded LulzSec had more in common with turning Sammy the Bull against the Gotti family than a duel in cyberspace. The FBI still can’t compete with hackers at what they do best. The feds remain grossly outnumbered and, despite marked improvements in this area, lacking in talent. The FBI struggles to recruit truly skilled hackers, even white hats, because they don’t match the squeaky-clean applicant profile, have little love for law enforcement, and would be more valued in the private sector or black market. Still, that doesn’t mean that law enforcement can’t win. As we saw when Anonymous considered challenging the cartels, cyber eventually gets real, and nobody actually lives in cyberspace. The FBI’s LulzSec busts are an example of how it can successfully target hackers doing what it does best, proving the effectiveness of human intelligence operations even against cybercrime.

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More Stories By Bob Gourley

Bob Gourley, former CTO of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), is Founder and CTO of Crucial Point LLC, a technology research and advisory firm providing fact based technology reviews in support of venture capital, private equity and emerging technology firms. He has extensive industry experience in intelligence and security and was awarded an intelligence community meritorious achievement award by AFCEA in 2008, and has also been recognized as an Infoworld Top 25 CTO and as one of the most fascinating communicators in Government IT by GovFresh.