The hack of the year

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Hacker Dan Egerstad

A Swedish hacker tells how he infiltrated a global communications network used by scores of embassies over the world, using tools freely available on the internet.

In August, Swedish hacker Dan Egerstad gained access to sensitive embassy, NGO and corporate email accounts. Were they captured from the clutches of hackers? Or were they being used by spies? Patrick Gray investigates the most sensational hack of 2007.

IT WASN'T supposed to be this easy. Swedish hacker Dan Egerstad had infiltrated a global communications network carrying the often-sensitive emails of scores of embassies scattered throughout the world. It had taken him just minutes, using tools freely available for download on the internet.

He says he broke no laws.

In time, Egerstad gained access to 1000 high-value email accounts. He would later post 100 sets of sensitive email logins and passwords on the internet for criminals, spies or just curious teenagers to use to snoop on inter-governmental, NGO and high-value corporate email.

The question on everybody's lips was: how did he do it? The answer came more than a week later and was somewhat anti-climactic. The 22-year-old Swedish security consultant had merely installed free, open-source software - called Tor - on five computers in data centres around the globe and monitored it. Ironically, Tor is designed to prevent intelligence agencies, corporations and computer hackers from determining the virtual - and physical - location of the people who use it.

"Tor is like having caller ID blocking for your internet address," says Shava Nerad, development director with the Tor Project. "All it does is hide where you're communicating from."

Tor was developed by the US Navy to allow personnel to conceal their locations from websites and online services they would access while overseas. By downloading the simple software, personnel could hide the internet protocol address of their computers - the tell-tale number that allows website operators or intelligence services to determine a user's location.

Eventually the navy realised it must take Tor beyond the armed forces. "The problem is, if you make Tor a tool that's only used by the military . . . by using Tor you're advertising that you're military," Nerad says.

So Tor was cast into the public domain. It is now maintained and distributed by a registered charity as an open-source tool that anyone can freely download and install. Hundreds of thousands of internet users have installed Tor, according to the project's website.

Mostly it is workers who want to browse pornographic websites anonymously. "If you analyse the traffic, it's just porn," Egerstad told Next by phone from Sweden. "It's kind of sad."

However, Dmitri Vitaliev, a Russian-born, Australian-educated computer security professional who lives in Canada, says Tor is a vital tool in the fight for democracy. Vitaliev trains human-rights campaigners on how to stay safe when online in oppressive regimes. "It's incredibly important," he said in a Skype chat from the unrecognised state of Transnistria, a breakaway region in Moldova where he's assisting a local group working to stop the trafficking of women. "Anonymity is a high advantage in countries that perform targeted surveillance on activists."

It's also used to bypass website censorship in more than 20 countries that censor political and human rights sites, he says.

Tor works by connecting its users' internet requests, randomly, to volunteer-run Tor network nodes. Anyone can run a Tor node, which relays the user's traffic through other nodes as encrypted data that can't be intercepted.

When the user's data reaches the edge of the Tor network, after bouncing through several nodes, it pops out the other side as unencrypted, readable data. Egerstad was able to get his mitts on sensitive information by running an exit node and monitoring the traffic that passed through it.

The problem, says Vitaliev, is some Tor users assume their data is protected from end to end. "As in pretty much any other internet technology, its vulnerabilities are not well understood by those who use it (and) need it most," he says.

The discovery that sensitive, government emails were passing through Tor exit nodes as unencrypted, readable data was only mildly surprising to Egerstad. It made sense - because Tor documentation mentions "encryption", many users assume they're safe from all snooping, he says.

"People think they're protected just because they use Tor. Not only do they think it's encrypted, but they also think 'no one can find me'," Egerstad says. "But if you've configured your computer wrong, which probably more than 50 per cent of the people using Tor have, you can still find the person (on) the other side."

Initially it seemed that government, embassy, NGO and corporate staffers were using Tor but had misconfigured their systems, allowing Egerstad to sniff sensitive information off the wire. After Egerstad posted the passwords, blame for the embarrassing breach was initially placed on the owners of the passwords he had intercepted.

However, Egerstad now believes the victims of his experiment may not have been using Tor. It's quite possible he stumbled on an underground intelligence gathering exercise, carried out by parties unknown.

"The whole point of the story that has been forgotten, and I haven't said much about it, (is that) many of these accounts had been compromised," he says. "The logins I caught were not legit users but actual hackers who'd been reading these accounts."

In other words, the people using Tor to access embassy email accounts may not have been embassy staff at all. Egerstad says they were computer hackers using Tor to hide their origins from their victims.

The cloaking nature of Tor is appealing in the extreme to computer hackers of all persuasions - criminal, recreational and government sponsored.

If it weren't for the "last-hop" exit node issue Egerstad exposed in such a spectacular way, parties unknown would still be rifling the inboxes of embassies belonging to dozens of countries. Diplomatic memos, sensitive emails and the itineraries of government staffers were all up for grabs.

After a couple of months sniffing and capturing information, Egerstad was faced with a moral dilemma: what to do with all the intercepted passwords and emails.

If he turned his findings over to the Swedish authorities, his experiment might be used by his country's intelligence services to continue monitoring the compromised accounts. That was a little too close to espionage for his liking.

So Egerstad set about notifying the affected governments. He approached a few, but the only one to respond was Iran. "They wanted to know everything I knew," he says. "That's the only response I got, except a couple of calls from the Swedish security police, but that was pretty much all the response I got from any authority."

Frustrated by the lack of a response, Egerstad's next step caused high anxiety for government staffers - and perhaps intelligence services - across the globe. He posted 100 email log-ins and passwords on his blog, DEranged Security. "I just ended up (saying) 'Screw it, I'm just going to put it online and see what happens'."

The news hit the internet like a tonne of bricks, despite some initial scepticism. The email logins were quickly and officially acknowledged by some countries as genuine, while others were independently verified.

US-based security consultant - and Tor user - Sam Stover says he has mixed feelings about Egerstad's actions. "People all of a sudden (said) 'maybe Tor isn't the silver bullet that we thought it was'," Stover says. "However, I'm not sure I condone the mechanism by which that sort of information had to be exposed in order to do that."

Stover admits that he, too, once set up a Tor exit node. "It's pretty easy . . . I set it up once real quick just to make sure that I could see other people's traffic and, sure enough, you can," he says. "(But) I'm not interested in that sort of intelligence gathering."

While there's no direct evidence, it's possible Egerstad's actions shut down an active intelligence-gathering exercise. journalist Kim Zetter blogged the claims of an Indian Express reporter that he was able to access the email account for the Indian ambassador in China and download a transcript of a meeting between the Chinese foreign minister and an Indian official. In addition to hackers using Tor to hide their origins, it's plausible that intelligence services had set up rogue exit nodes to sniff data from the Tor network.

"Domestic, or international . . . if you want to do intelligence gathering, there's definitely data to be had there," says Stover. "(When using Tor) you have no idea if some guy in China is watching all your traffic, or some guy in Germany, or a guy in Illinois. You don't know."

Egerstad is circumspect about the possible subversion of Tor by intelligence agencies. "If you actually look in to where these Tor nodes are hosted and how big they are, some of these nodes cost thousands of dollars each month just to host because they're using lots of bandwidth, they're heavy-duty servers and so on," Egerstad says. "Who would pay for this and be anonymous?"

While Stover regards Tor as a useful tool, he says its value is greatly overestimated by those who promote and use it. "I would not use or recommend the tool to hide from people between you and your endpoint. It's really purely a tool to hide from the endpoint," he says.

As a trained security professional, Stover has the nous to understand its limitations, he says. Most people don't.

The lesson remains but the data Egerstad captured is gone, the Swedish hacker insists. He's now focusing on his career as a freelance security consultant. "I deleted everything I had because the information I had was belonging to so many countries that no single person should have this information so I actually deleted it and the hard drives are long gone," he says.

Patrick Gray's interviews with Dan Egerstad and Sam Stover can be heard in his podcast from