Six months ago we published An Analyst’s Environment, which describes some tools we use that are a bit beyond the typical lone gun grassroots analyst. Since then our VPS based Elasticsearch cluster has given way to some Xeon equipment in racks, which lead to Xeon equipment under desks.
Looking back over the past two months, we see a quickly maturing “build sheet” for analyst workstations. This is in no small part due to our discovery of Budgie, an Ubuntu Linux offshoot. Some of our best qualitative analysts are on Macs and they are extremely defensive of their work environment. Budgie permits at least some of that activity to move to Linux, and its thought that this will become increasingly common.
Do not assume that “I already use Ubuntu” is sufficient to evaluate Budgie. They are spending a lot of time taking off the rough edges. At the very least, put it in a VM and give it a look.
Once installed, we’re including the following packages by default:
The Hunch.ly web capture package requires Google Chrome.
Chromium provides a separate unrecorded browser.
Maltego CE link analysis package is useful even if constrained.
Evernote is popular with some of our people, Tusk works on Linux.
XMind Zen provides mind mapping that works on all platforms.
Timeline has been a long term player and keeps adding features.
Gephi data visualization works, no matter what sized screen is used.
Both Talkwalker Alerts and Inoreader feeds are RSS based. People seem to be happy with the web interface, but what happens when you’re in a place without network access. There are a number of RSS related applications in Budgie’s slick software store. Someone is going to have to go through them and see which best fits that particular use case.
There have been so many iterations of this set of recommendations, most conditioned by the desire to support Windows, as well as Mac and Linux. The proliferation of older Xeon equipment, in particular the second generation HP Z420/Z620/Z820, which start in useable condition at around $150, mean we no longer have that constraint.
Sampling of inexpensive HP Z420s on Ebay in May of 2019.
Starting with that base, 64 gig of additional memory is about $150, and another $200 will will cover a 500 gig Crucial solid state disk and the fanless entry level Nvidia GT1030.
The specific combination of the Z420 and the Xeon E5-2650L v2 has a benchmark that matches the current MacBook Pro, it will be literally an order of magnitude faster on Gephi, the most demanding of those applications, and it will happily work for hours on end without making a sound. The Mac, on the other hand, will be making about as much noise as a Shopvac after just five minutes.
That chip and some Thermal Grizzly Kryonaut should not cost you more than $60 and will take a base Z420 from four cores to ten. So there you have it – mostly free software, a workstation you can build incrementally, and then you have the foundation required to sort out complex problems.
Our prior work on Twitter content has involved bulk collection of the following types of data:
Tweets, including raw text suitable for stylometry.
Activity time for the sake of temporal signatures.
Mentions including temporal data for conversation maps.
User ID data for profile searches.
Follower/following relationships, often using Maltego.
Early on this involved simply running multiple accounts in parallel, each working on their own set of tasks. Seemingly quick results were a matter of knowing what to collect and letting things happen. Hardware upgrades around the start of 2019 permitted us to run sixteen accounts in parallel … then thirty two … and finally sixty four, which exceeded the bounds of 100mbit internet service.
We had never done much with the Twitter streaming API until just two weeks ago, but our expanded ability to handle large volumes of raw data has made this a very interesting proposition. There are now ten accounts engaged in collecting either a mix of terms or following lists of hundreds of high value accounts.
What we get from streams at this time includes:
RT’d tweet content.
Quoted tweet content.
Twitter user data for the source.
Twitter user data for accounts mentioned.
Twitter user data for accounts that are RT’d.
User to mentioned account event including timestamp.
User to RT’d account event including timestamp.
This data is currently accumulating in a mix of Elasticsearch indices. We recognize that we have at least three document types:
Our current setup is definitely beta at this point. We probably need more attention on the natural language processing aspect of the tweets themselves, particularly as we expand into handling multiple European languages. User data could standing having hashtags extracted from profiles, which we missed the first time around, otherwise this seems pretty simple.
The interaction data is where things become uncertain. It is good to have this content in Elasticsearch for the sake of filtering. It is unclear precisely how much we should permit to accumulate in these derivative documents; at this point they’re just the minimal data from each tweet that permits establishing the link between accounts involved. Do we also do this for hashtags?
Once we have this, the next question is what do we do with it? The search, sorting, and time slicing of Elasticsearch is nice, but this is really network data, and we want to visualize it.
Maltego is out of the running before we even start; 10k nodes maximum has been a barrier for a long time. Gephi is unusable on a 4k Linux display due to font sizing for readability, and it will do just enough on a half million node network to leave one hanging with an analysis half finished on a smaller display.
The right answer(s) seem to be to get moving on Graphistry and Neo4j. An EVGA GTX 1060 turned up here a few weeks ago, displaying a GT 1030 to an associate. Given the uptime requirements for Elasticsearch, not much has happened towards Graphistry use other than the physical install. It looks like Docker is a requirement, and that’s a synonym for “invasive nuisance”.
Neo4j has some visualization abilities but its real attraction is the native handling of storage and queries for graphs. Our associates who engage in analysis ask questions that are easily answered with Elasticsearch … and other questions that are utterly impossible to resolve with any tool we currently wield.
Expanding capacity has permitted us to answer some questions … but on the balance its uncovered more mysteries than it has resolved. This next month is going to involve getting some standard in place for assessing incoming streams, and pressing on both means of handling graph data, to see which one we can bring to bear first.
This week we had a chance to work with an analyst who is new to our environment. The conversation revealed some things we find pedestrian that are exciting to a new person, so we’re going to detail them.
Many people use Google’s Alerts, but far fewer are familiar with the service Talkwalker offers. This company offers social media observation tools and their free alerts service seems to be a way to gather cognitive excess, to learn what things might matter to actual humans. These alerts arrive as email, or as an RSS feed, which is a very valuable format.
Google Reader used to be a good feed reader, but it was canceled some years ago. Alternatives today include Feedly and Inoreader. The first is considered the best for day to day reading activity, while Inoreader gets high marks for archival and automation. The paid version, just $49 per year, will comfortably handle hundreds of feeds, including the RSS output from the above mentioned Talkwalker.
Talkwalker Alerts never sleep, Inoreader provides all sorts of automation, but how does one preserve some specific aspect of the overall take? We like Hunch.ly for faithful capture. This $129 tool is a Chrome extension that faithfully saves every page visited, it offers ‘selectors’, text strings that are standing queries in an ‘investigation’, which can be exported as a single zip file, which another user can then import. That is an amazingly powerful capability for small groups, who are otherwise typically trying to synchronize with an incomplete, error filled manual process.
Alerting, feed tracking, and content preservation are important, but the Hunch.ly investigation is the right quantum of information for an individual or a small group. Larger bodies of information where linkages matter are best handled with Maltego Community Edition, which is free. There are transforms (queries) that will pull information from a Hunch.ly case, but the volume of information returned exceeds the CE version’s twelve item limit.
Maltego Classic is $1,000 with a $499 annual maintenance fee. This is well worth the cost for serious investigation work, particularly when there is a need to live share data among multiple analysts.
Costs Of Doing Business
We are extremely fond of FOSS tools, but there are some specialized tasks where it simply makes no sense to try to “roll your own”. This $1,200 kit of tools is a force multiplier for any investigator, dramatically enhancing accuracy and productivity.
One of the perennial problems in this field is the antiquated notion of jurisdiction, as well as increasing pressure on Westphalian Sovereignty. JP and I touched on this during our November 5th appearance on The View Up Here. The topic is complex and visual, so this post offers some images to back up the audio there.
Regional Internet Registries
The top level administrative domains for the network layer of the internet are the five Regional Internet Registries. These entities were originally responsible for blocks of 32 bit IPv4 addresses and 16 bit Autonomous System numbers. Later we added 128 bit IPv6 addresses and 32 bit Autonomous System numbers as the original numbers were being exhausted.
When you plug your home firewall into your cable modem it receives an IP address from your service provider and a default route. That outside IP is globally unique, like a phone number, and the default route is where any non-local traffic is sent.
Did you ever stop to wonder where your cable modem provider gets their internet service? The answer is that there is no ‘default route’ for the world, they connect at various exchange points, and they share traffic there. The ‘default route’ for the internet is a dynamic set of not quite 700,000 blocks of IP addresses, known as prefixes, which originate from 59,000 Autonomous Systems.
The Autonomous System can be though of as being similar to an telephone system country code. It indicates from a high level where a specific IP address prefix is located. The prefix can be thought of as an area code or city code, it’s a more specific location within the give Autonomous System.
There isn’t a neat global map for this stuff, but if you’re trying to make a picture, imagine a large bunch of grapes. The ones on the outside of the bunch are the hosting companies and smaller ISPs, who only touch a couple neighbors. The ones in the middle of the bunch touch many neighbors and are similar in position to the big global data carriers.
Domain Name Service
Once a new ISP has circuits from two or more upstream providers they can apply for an Autonomous System number and ask for IP prefixes. Those prefixes used to come straight from the RIRs, but any more you have to be a large provider to do that. Most are issued to smaller service providers by the large ones, but the net effect is the same.
Having addresses is just a start, the next step is finding interesting things to do. This requires the internet’s phone book – the Domain Name System. This is how we map names, like netwarsystem.com, to an IP address, like 220.127.116.11. There is also a reverse DNS domain that is meant to associate IP addresses with names. If you try to check that IP I just mentioned it’ll fail, which is a bit funny, as that’s not us, that’s kremlin[.]ru.
Domain Name Registrars & Root DNS Servers
How do you get a DNS name to use in the first place? Generally speaking, you have to pay a Registrar a fee for your domain name, there is some configuration done regarding your Start Of Authority, which is a fancy way of saying which name servers are responsible for your domain, then this is pushed to the DNS Root Servers.
There are nominally thirteen root servers. That doesn’t mean thirteen computers, it means there are twelve different organizations manage them (Verisign handles two), and their addresses are ‘anycast’, which means they originate from multiple locations, while the actual systems themselves are hidden from direct access. This is sort of a CDN for DNS data, and it exists due to endless attacks that are directed at these systems.
Verisign’s two systems are in datacenters on every continent and have over a hundred staff involved in their ongoing operation.
Layers Of Protection
And then things start to get fuzzy, because people who are in conflict will protect both their servers and their access.
Our web server is behind the Cloudflare Content Distribution Network. There are other CDNs out there and they exist to accelerate content as well as protect origin servers from attack. We like this service because it keeps our actual systems secret. This would be one component of that Adversary Resistant Hosting that we don’t otherwise discuss here.
When accessing the internet it is wise to conceal one’s point of origin if there may be someone looking back. This is Adversary Resistant Networking, which is done with Virtual Private Networks, the Tor anonymizing network, misattribution services like Ntrepid, and other methods that require some degree of skill to operate.
Peeling The Onion
Once you understand how all the pieces fit together there are still complexity and temporal issues.
Networked machines can generate enormous amounts of data. We previously used Splunk and recently shifted to Elasticsearch, both of which are capable of handling tens of millions of datapoints per day, even on the limited hardware we have available to us. Both systems permit time slicing of data as well as many other ways to abstract and summarize.
Data visualization can permit one to see relationships that are impenetrable to a manual examination. We use Paterva‘s Maltego for some of this sort of work and we reach for Gephi when there are larger volumes to handle.
Some of the most potent tools in our arsenal are RiskIQ and Farsight. These services collect passive DNS resolution data, showing bindings between names and IP addresses when they were active. RiskIQ collects time series domain name registration data. We can examine SSL certificates, trackers from various services, and many other aspects of hosting in order to accurately attribute activity.
The world benefits greatly from citizen journalists who dig into all sorts of things. This is less than helpful when it comes to complex infrastructure problems. Some specific issues that have arisen:
People who are not well versed in the technologies used can manage to sound credible to the layman. There have been numerous instances where conspiracy theorists have made comical attribution errors, in particular geolocation data for IPs being used to assert correlations where none exists.
There is a temporal component that arises when facing any opponent with even a bit of tradecraft and freely available tools don’t typically address that, so would-be investigators are left piecing things together, often without all of the necessary information.
Free access to quality tools like Maltego and RiskIQ are both intentionally limited. RiskIQ in particular cases problems in the hands of the uninitiated – a domain hosted on a Cloudflare IP will have thousands of fellows, but the free system will only show a handful. There have been many instances of people making inferences based on that limited data that have no connection to objective reality.
We do not have a y’all come policy in this area, we specifically seek out those who have the requisite skills to do proper analysis, who know when they are out on a limb. When we do find such an individual who has a legitimate question, we can bring a great deal of analytical power to bear.
That specific scenario happened today, which triggered the authoring of this article. We may never be able to make the details public, but an important thing happened earlier, and the world is hopefully a little safer for it.
This is one of nearly two dozen sites pushing fringe right wing views that are all associated with Mark Edward Baker, as detailed in this story by McClatchy. When I first heard of this the initial thought was that something so slippery could be a foreign influence operation. I came to a much different conclusion, but it took many hours of digging.
Here are the full list of domains involved:
The physical plant for this is a circus – 434 unique IP addresses and they all seem to be tied to the operation.
A simpler exam of the SOA for each domain yielded a deeper clue in the form of the [email protected] address used for registration. It’s connected to another cluster of domains.
We are not going to revisit the merry chase this guy provides – fire up hunch.ly and go at it. He uses the alias Mark Bentley, be on the lookout for LOP, which is short of League of Power, and his wife Jennifer is a signatory on some of the paperwork. He has at least half a dozen PO boxes in Florida and a similar setup in Reno, Nevada, which appears to he his origin. Once I was sure I had a real name, I was more interested in what his business model is and if there were any foreign ties.
If you poke around for League of Power you’ll find complaints about his $27 scam work from home DVD. This guy’s ideology is getting other people’s money and providing little to nothing in return. This is pretty common to see on both sides of the aisle – grifters working the earnest, but naive masses. This guy clearly focuses on the right – different skills are needed to run a similar game against the left.
Here is the one image that more or less sums up what he is doing:
You would have to be in the business of examining attribution resistant hosting to notice this, but it was like a flashing neon sign for me. Domains that don’t want to be traced typically have no email handling at all. This guy’s business model is list building, which he’ll use for maybe some political stuff, but it will be an ongoing bulk mail target after the election.
What about foreign influence being behind this? The article mentions that conservativezone[.]com[.]com had been used. That’s a spearphishing move. It resolves to these geniuses:
What is AS206349? A dinky autonomous system in Bulgaria with a history of IP address hijacking. Baker got some service from these guys, but it wasn’t anything he wanted to receive. The may have noticed he was gathering lists of the easily duped and decided this would be a good phishing hole for them.
People who are way into the bipolar politics in the U.S. tend to judge things as either on their side, or the opposition. There are nuances on that spectrum that get ignored, foreign influence, weird cyberstalker types, and just outright fraud, like we’re seeing here. Don’t jump to sticking a red or blue label on something until you’ve had a good chance to inspect it and conjure up some alternate theories.
Let’s take a look at a curious thing in RiskIQ – the October 22nd registration for the 0hour1[.]com domain.
The nameservers at westcall[.]ru are part of a large ISP in St. Petersburg. The registrant’s trail is an intentional mess, but lets see what we can find on Brian Durant. It’s helpful to know his birth name – Fiore DiPietrantonio.
Durant came to my attention because his crew are bothering a CVE researcher I know, and threatening a man in Brooklyn that they mistakenly identified as them. There is a decent Threadreader on Durant from @trebillion that provided me a starting point.
Achtung! If you choose to pursue this, you must turn your OSINT tradecraft up to eleven. The name change is an attempt to leave behind a shady past, there is intentional deception at work prior to the politics, and don’t chase after a pretty face on a largely empty persona.
As a sign of how much of a hassle this backtrail was, take a look at my hunch.ly case for it. And this is the second one – the first draft had so much crud in it I found it easier to just start over and revisit the stuff I confirmed.
About that empty female persona … here is where it starts.
Which of these do you think are legitimate?
If you picked only #1 and #2, which a faint urge to check #3, give yourself a gold star.
I got distracted writing this and spent half an hour playing with the RiskIQ response to the Maltego Domain Analysis transform. GoDaddy is a terrible swamp that typically reveals nothing, so I collapsed it to a point to better see the other things. The westcall[.]ru nameserver mistake only showed in the registration, they caught it before it started turning up in passive DNS. So what are these three other things we see?
18.104.22.168 is part of The Swamp – the tiny allocations in 192.0.0.0/7 that were handed out for free back in the eighties. RiskIQ shows over 9,000 names for it, Maltego finds 552, ARIN says it’s a point to point link from Limestone Networks to a customer. It’s been passed around for thirty years or more and I don’t think it tells us much. The reverse lookup is the last one someone carded to enter and those don’t seem to matter much on shared servers. Make a mental note to come back, only if all else fails.
22.214.171.124 is a European address, you can tell just by the leading octet, and with a little poking we find it’s in AS44901 – BelCloud Hosting, but it’s listed with over 10,000 other names.
What about 126.96.36.199? Looking at the times it was active we find that it had the system to itself, running what looks to be WordPress under cPanel.
This is turning into a common theme – people trying to do their own hosting and then giving up after a couple days. The DNS tab provided another interesting clue that I just noticed as I was drafting this article.
And what’s going on here? Every time I look at this thing I find another eastern European/Russian link.
So … I thought this was going to be a declaration and instead it’s a problem statement – there is more digging to do here. But there is one piece of digging that is done – the ID of Brian Durant’s associate who threatened me when I first started probing is within easy reach. Check the DM that @NetwarSystem received on October 17th and the menacing voicemail from October 27th.
This “very reasonable dude” is @MistaBRONCO, which has been a stable alias for him for at least six years. It was on his Flickr account, where a close inspection of cat photos turned up this gem. Handsome boy, isn’t he?
So our internet tough guy who cleverly pressed *69 before he left me a message on a Google Voice number that hasn’t a phone attached to it in five years is laid low by the ol’ surname & multiple phone numbers on a pet’s nametag. Amateur hour here – stable name, personal details all over the place. This is all recorded in hunch.ly and the good bits of the YouTube channel that put the voice with this cat are safe, too.
So I’ve got a voice threat, another guy that this genius misidentified as Ca1m has received threats, the source lives on Long Island, the target is in Brooklyn. Since these are both covered by the NYC FBI field office and I was pointedly told to “come correct”, I had the following exchange with the counter-terrorism SA in that office, whom I’ve known since Occupy days.
That’s as correct as I can play it in the wee hours of a Friday right before a midterm in which Russian influence is certainly still a problem.
Articles here are written by a single author (thus far) but represent the collective views of a loose group of two dozen collaborators, hence the use of the first person plural ‘we’. We take on civil investigations, criminal defense, penetration testing, and geopolitical/cybersecurity threat assessments.
Group members have native fluency in English, French, German, Spanish, Romanian, and we do a fair job with Arabic when it is required. Several of us have corporate or IPS infrastructure backgrounds, and our tools, both chosen and created, reflect this internal integration capability.
This is an inventory of the major systems we currently employ.
The Gephi data visualization package is a piece of free software which permits the handling of networks with tens of thousands of nodes and hundreds of thousands of links. We use this for macro scale examinations of Twitter and some types of financial data, coding import procedures to express complex metrics, when required. When you see colorful network maps, this is likely the source.
The Maltego OSINT link analysis system began life as a penetration tester’s toolkit. It offers a rich set of entities, integration of many free and paid services, and local transform creation. There is a team collaboration feature for paid subscribers and the free Community Edition can read any graph we produce. This is used internally in the same way a financial audit firm would employ a spreadsheet – it is a de facto standard for recording and sharing investigation information.
Sentinel Visualizer is a law enforcement/intel grade link analysis package that supports both geospatial and temporal analysis. This only comes out in the face of paying engagements with large volumes of data, as it has a somewhat intimidating learning curve.
Hunch.ly is a Google Chrome extension that preserves the trail of web sites one visits, applying a standing list of selectors to each page and permitting the addition of investigator’s notes. This tool supports the notion of multiple named investigations, preserves content statically, and can export in a variety of formats. Users are free to follow their noses without the burden of bookmarking and making screen shots while investigating, then later attempting to share their findings in a coherent fashion. The system recently began supporting local Maltego transforms.
The RiskIQ service is an aggregator of a dozen passive threat data repositories in addition to it’s own native tracking of domain registrations, DNS, SSL certificates, and other threat assessment data. The service is delivered as a web based search engine and a companion set of Maltego transforms. This system is a panopticon for bad actor infrastructure which we use daily.
The Elasticsearch platform is used for many things, but for us it is a full text search engine with temporal analysis capabilities that will easily handle tens of thousands of Twitter accounts that have produced tens of millions of tweets. This is a construction kit for us, the right way to collate and correlate the work of teams of Actors, Collectors, and Directors. We currently curate 25 million tweets from ISIS accounts that were collected by TRAC, we support Liberty STRATCOM with collection and analysis, and the botnetsu.press system is in use by activists who track violent right wing groups in the west.
What not to do is just as important as the right stuff. Here are some things we avoided, that we tested but did not implement, or that we have used but later abandoned.
Analyst’s Notebook – nonstarter, 2x the cost of Sentinel Visualizer, and not nearly as open.
Windows – with the exception of Sentinel Visualizer, we don’t have anything that is Windows dependent. Generally speaking, things have to behave for Linux and OSX, with Windows support being nice, but not required.
Splunk – we tried to love it, truly we did. It just didn’t work out.
OSSIM – largely abandonware from what we hear. AlienVault’s Open Threat Exchange is doing fine though, and it all turns up in RiskIQ.
Aeon, Timeline, etc – we always jump at collaborative timeline tools, then later end up sitting back and being annoyed. SaaS solutions are out there, but we have confidentiality concerns that hold us back from using them.
TimeSketch – very cool, an Elastic based tool, but more incident response focused than intel oriented.
SpiderFoot – very cool, but we settled on RiskIQ/Maltego installed on a remotely accessible workstation. This is one we should put back up and use enough to advise others.
There have been many more digressions over the years, these are some of the more formative ones.