SocialLinks: An Actual Investigation

We have a special treat today, an actual investigation and preservation exercise on a Russian company we have had our eye on for the last year. First, to understand why today is their lucky day, peruse this New York Times article:

Here’s the lede from the article for those who refuse to click through:

On the same day Facebook announced that it had carried out its biggest purge yet of American accounts peddling disinformation, the company quietly made another revelation: It had removed 66 accounts, pages and apps linked to Russian firms that build facial recognition software for the Russian government.

This is a good step, but it isn’t the only housecleaning needed.

Available OSINT

If you open the current Maltego client you will see the Transform Hub, a listing of all service providers you can integrate. This is what you see this morning in the left hand column if you open the application on a 4k monitor. Note what is first and what is last.

SocialLinks Offerings In Maltego
SocialLinks Offerings In Maltego Transform Hub

I am the admin for the Maltego Group on LinkedIn. This is a screen shot I collected this morning. Implicit in this is a violation of Facebook terms of service, the source is SocialLinks CEO Alexandr Aleexev.

SocialLinks CEO Alexandr Alexeev Violates Facebook TOS
SocialLinks CEO Alexandr Alexeev Violates Facebook TOS

The company’s YouTube page has a variety of other demonstrations that indicate similar practices on other social media platforms. I snagged a screen shot from the video, which shows what they were doing a year ago.

SocialLinks Social Media Platforms
SocialLinks Social Media Platforms

This alone is enough to set off alarm bells given the current climate. We know a bit more about this company, because I assumed their appearance on the Transform Hub meant they were a quality provider. I spent $130 for a month of service in November of 2017, setting off six weeks of curious encounters, both with them, and disinterested counter-intelligence investigators on three continents.

Our Encounter

Needing to capture some Instagram content for a civil case, I grew weary of chasing threads after I got acquainted with the players, so I went looking for an automation solution that would capture their social network. I had an Instagram account to use from one of the parties to the case, but I assumed it would be burned the minute any evidence from it showed in a filing.

What I received just plain didn’t work. Not with Instagram, not with my personal LinkedIn network, not with Github, which should be fairly open.

SocialLinks Troubles
SocialLinks Troubles

This went on for a while, at first with me sharing details of DNS resolution issues for their servers and other stuff that seemed like normal troubleshooting. When I went to LinkedIn and made contact with CEO Alexandr Alexeev, I was immediately suspicious given his Moscow location.

We had an initial conversation on LinkedIn, below is an example of how things started. We agreed to meet on Wire, and there I was asked about VPNs, provisioning proxies in the U.S., and other means to circumvent access restrictions. I played along, thinking that some counter-intel attention might be forthcoming.

Alexander Alexeev 2018-01-20
Alexander Alexeev 2018-01-20

Counter-intelligence Failures

I felt there was plenty of reason for attention on this situation, but after a month of asking for attention, no fewer than three governments who should have been interested all struck out without so much as a single swing.

  • United States – target of Russian election interference.
  • United Kingdom – target of Russia referendum interference.
  • South Africa – home of Maltego maker Paterva.

I’m not saying that I typed this all into IC3, pressed ‘send’, and crossed my fingers. I had conversations with two people in the U.S. IC community, I talked to James Patrick at Liberty STRATCOM, and I have an associate who has a personal relationship with a brigadier in Hawks, South Africa’s Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation.

There are two ways to interpret this – either the system has already noticed and is working the problem, or the system is utterly overloaded and we are on our own. The fact that I got no response from any of the three countries made me think it was the latter. Having covered my own position, I sat back to see what happened next.

Further Cause To Act

Two months ago I met up with someone who had experiences with Social Links that were very similar to mine. I had already come to believe  I was dealing with someone trying to “handle” me, albeit clumsily, and probably seeking advice from someone else in the process. Talking to this other party hardened that impression. That’s all I am going to say about this.

Removal

As a last ditch effort, I reached out to an FBI Special Agent I know last week. They had the weekend to think it over, Monday to act, and the NYT article is the last piece of stimulus I need.  I just removed Alexeev from the LinkedIn Maltego Group and later today I am going to remove his posts, after announcing why he was removed.

Alexandr Alexeev Removal
Alexandr Alexeev Removal

Preservation & Publication

The particulars of what happened are important so I set out to preserve the details. Here are the steps I took:

  • Started Hunch.ly, preserved forty pages, both public and private. This application preserves content in an admissible fashion.
  • Launched MediaHuman’s YouTube Downloader  just in case they or YouTube decide to wipe their channel.
  • Preserved the @_SocialLinks_ Twitter account for further analysis using both Maltego and our internal tools.
  • Wrapped up the exported Hunch.ly casefile, the Maltego graphs, and the videos, transferred it to a person who will hand carry it to a former U.S. Attorney we employ for certain sorts of touchy situations.

That last bit is just for my protection, given that our President and Attorney General both appear to be compromised by the Russian government. I will not be subject to a raid that deprives me of exculpatory evidence, followed by a politically motivated prosecution.

Conclusion

In the absence of any response from the agencies that ought to handle problems like this, I guess we are in charge for the moment. If you’ve had similar troubles with this company, I advise you to back up everything, transfer it to legal counsel so that it is protected from seizure by attorney client privilege, then reach out to your local FBI field office.

I have shared the particulars with a couple reporters, too. If you have similar experiences and wouldn’t mind being interviewed on this, feel free to contact me.