Russian influence and Shadow Brokers’ message ‘to elites’

Weeks after the Shadow Brokers Equation Group leaks, there has been plenty of speculation over the origin of the data tools auction and the timing of their release. Even Edward Snowden’s Twitter Account helpfully weighed in, directing his followers in the tech world and the public in how best to interpret the meaning of the leaks.

Just today comes the report from the Washington Post about the US investigating Russian influence operations ahead of the US election.

Hillary Clinton

A closer look at the message released with the Shadow Brokers leak, written in a kind of Charlie Chan English, strikes me how closely its themes conform to a broader storyline Russia has been pushing about power in the West generally and about Hillary Clinton specifically. Whether this means that Russia is behind the leak – we will probably never know. But the marketing of the message fits pretty closely.

First, let’s be clear: there are legitimate (very, legitimate) reform movements, parties, leaders seeking to address the excesses of economic globalization and inequality which have hurt middle classes in advanced societies.

Now on to the Shadow Brokers statement.

A feature of Russian propaganda is to fuse their strategic message with a legitimate message or messenger or cause.

What’s significant about the anti-elite message in the Shadow Brokers message, is that it matches Russian messaging elsewhere, which equates so-called “globalism” with America. This Russia-backed campaign has directed a lot of energy against Hillary Clinton, who is, to be sure, an elite insider.

But in a race between a competent insider such as herself and a candidate who could well prove to be a wrecking ball for democratic institutions in the West, well, you can see the choice American voters are faced with.

By now, most people following the Shadow Brokers intrigue have heard of the message that begins: “How much you pay for enemies cyber weapons?”

But it’s the “Closing Remarks” which carry the message that hits many of the same notes as the global anti-Hillary campaign/pro-Trump campaign against elites.

Consider this final part of the message.

We have final message for “Wealthy Elites”.

We know what is wealthy but what is Elites? Elites is making laws protect self and friends,
lie and fuck other peoples. Elites is breaking laws, regular peoples go to jail, life ruin, family ruin, but not Elites. Elites is breaking laws, many peoples know Elites guilty, Elites call top friends at law enforcement and government agencies, offer bribes, make promise future handjobs, (but no blowjobs). Elites top friends announce, no law broken, no crime commit. Reporters (not call journalist) make living say write only nice things about Elites, convince dumb cattle, is just politics, everything is awesome, check out our ads and our prostitutes. Then Elites runs for president. Why run for president when already control country like dictatorship?

The implication that all power and elites are corrupt and there seem to be nods even to Hillary’s email woes.

“Elites is breaking laws…”

[The feeling that Clinton has somehow evaded prosecution over her handling of her emails while Secretary of State.]

“Many peoples know Elites guilty”

[The general perception of untrustworthiness by voters].

“Elites call top friends at law enforcement and government agencies, offer bribes, make promise future handjobs, (but no blowjobs). Elites top friends announce, no law broken, no crime commit.”

[FBI Director James Comey not recommending charges against Clinton. At the time, to the dismay of the Hillary-hunting right in the US politics, Comey said: “I see evidence of great carelessness, but I do not see evidence that is sufficient to establish that Secretary Clinton or those with whom she was corresponding both talked about classified information on e-mail and knew when they did it they were doing something that was against the law.”]

FBI director James Comey

“Why run for president when already control country like dictatorship?”

[Again this notion of a rigged system in which government itself is unaccountable].

“The Elites runs for president” is a curious line, not only because the 2016 election in the US is happening, but surely because the elites of the world aren’t all in systems that elect presidents rather than prime ministers, chancellors, etc. So the message is written either by or for people close to a constitutional republic like the US.

This is a message to hackers that seems to have a lot to say about “elites” who sound a lot like Hillary Clinton running for president. Even the discussion of “blow-jobs” would seem to name check the most famous “blow job” to ever reported in the White House – again a Clinton-related matter.

The message even echoes rhetoric used against Democrat Hillary Clinton – overtly, by Trump’s campaign, by unnamed trolls.



The writer of the message for the Wealthy Elites seems to acknowledge they’re at risk of going off course with their manifesto on the nature of power in the 21st Century. The next line:

What this have do with fun Cyber Weapons Auction? We want make sure Wealthy Elite recognizes the danger cyber weapons, this message, our auction, poses to their wealth and control. Let us spell out for Elites. Your wealth and control depends on electronic data. You see what “Equation Group” can do. You see what cryptolockers [ransomware] and stuxnet can do. You see free files we give for free. You see attacks on banks and SWIFT in news. Maybe there is Equation Group version of cryptolocker+stuxnet for banks and financial systems? If Equation Group lose control of cyber weapons, who else lose or find cyber weapons? If electronic data go bye bye where leave Wealthy Elites? Maybe with dumb cattle? “Do you feel in charge?” Wealthy Elites, you send bitcoins, you bid in auction, maybe big advantage for you?

It’s entirely possible that whoever crafted the ‘Wealthy Elites’ message isn’t the same group who got hold of the Equation Group exploits. What does ideology and politcal spin like this matter to hackers more concerned with the technical challenge? And what do propagandists care about the technical details on an exploit, as long as it is authentic, or appears authentic enough to inject the message in high-credibility circles online.

The ‘Wealthy Elites’ message is oblique. It doesn’t mention Hillary Clinton – but it certainly conveys Hillary Clinton. It’s oblique in much of the way a lot of effective propaganda is. Rather than being a full frontal attack on a specific person, it’s a broader and more effective sideswipe. Accordingly, as the Washington Post report on the US investigation notes:

The Kremlin’s intent may not be to sway the election in one direction or another, officials said, but to cause chaos and provide propaganda fodder to attack US democracy-building policies around the world, particularly in the countries of the former Soviet Union.

A broadside against elites, that seems to fit Clinton’s description would do this.

There is a long history of this kind of Russian propaganda towards the West in general and the US specifically. Here is an example of the rhetoric used in making Soviet propaganda attractive to Western thinkers and intellectuals in the 1930s – during the Great Depression, a period, not unlike today, when the Western economic and political system is being questioned at home and abroad. The person relating it explained how propaganda in the West was most effective – not by being pro-Joe Stalin – but being an outspoken innocent with high ideals.

You do not endorse Stalin. You do not call yourself a communist. You do not declare your love for the regime. You do not call on people to support the Soviets. Ever. Under any circumstances. You claim to be an independent-minded idealist. You don’t really understand politics, but you think the little guy is getting a lousy break. You believe in open-mindedness. You are shocked, frightened by what is going on right here in our own country. You are frightened by the racism, by the oppression of the working man. You think the Russians are trying a great human experiment, and you hope it works. You believe in peace. You yearn for international understanding. You hate fascism. You think the capitalism system is corrupt.

(from Stephen Koch’s Double Lives)

That pattern fits closely to the talk of “globalists” and “elites’ and “neoliberalism” today.

As the Washington Post story notes of the Russian influence efforts in the US election: It “seems to be a global campaign,”

Clearly, the hunger for reform in Western democracies is being co-opted by the wizards of propaganda in the East (look at the Bernie Sanders supporters who now oppose Sanders in their quest for “revolution.”). So I wouldn’t be surprised if part of the timing and message of Shadow Brokers leaks is related to this. The message to the wealthy elites seems to share some DNA with the anti-Hillary Clinton messages flooding the internet.

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Why did Snowden have to trick co-workers out of their passwords?

In order for Snowden to prove to the world that its privacy was being invaded by the NSA, by which I took to mean, relentless and unchecked sifting through the communications of people’s private lives, Snowden had to trick dozens of co-workers into giving up their passwords. But doesn’t that suggest that, even if NSA casts a wide net, the data it collected was secure and wasn’t sloshing around the NSA’s offices? I’m not defending the NSA. At a certain level, their work seems like nasty business.  Random searches of Americans on the presumption of guilt is also potentially unconstitutional.

But I dunno, I kind of assumed that what Snowden opposed was the recklessness of it, the unchecked nature of the data sifting, carelessly rummaged through, picked apart at whim. Yet, according to Reuters, Snowden had to resort to trickery to get access to it while he was inside the organization. Reuters:

Snowden may have persuaded between 20 and 25 fellow workers at the NSA regional operations center in Hawaii to give him their logins and passwords by telling them they were needed for him to do his job as a computer systems administrator, a second source said.

The revelation is the latest to indicate that inadequate security measures at the NSA played a significant role in the worst breach of classified data in the super-secret eavesdropping agency’s 61-year history.

To me it indicates Snowden is not a traditional whistleblower who sees an injustice in an organization and comes forward to the public. This whistleblower was an activist inside the organization first. He had to hustle for that information to take to the world.

If the US reforms the NSA, who benefits? China? Russia? Or the US?

Rory Medcalf of the Lowy Institute argues, logically, that what’s bad for the NSA may be good for the CIA. He writes that if the NSA gets its wings “clipped” by politicians, it may increase the appetite for age-old traditional spying, like the kind done by the CIA. That remains to be seen, especially in an era when people, organizations, governments are increasingly the sum of their computers.

But I am thinking the fallout from the Snowden saga may relate more to the second observation by Medcalf:

“There is some understandable worry about how much damage the Snowden leaks are doing to US influence, playing into the hands of authoritarian states untroubled about striking a balance between democratic transparency and effective intelligence capabilities.”

If the NSA does get its wings “clipped,” I would expect the reforms to buttress online and digital privacy rights in the US, as well as any UN treaty that’s being negotiated. But those reforms would be happening at a time when countries like China and Russia, with the NSA’s blueprints in hand, would consider upgrading their surveillance systems – with little or no civilian oversight. I don’t see oversight happening in Russia, not as the country drifts back in time under an authoritarian leader like Putin. And I suspect that the nascent civil society urge in China would be lightyears away from checks on the inner-workings of their own security services. In fact, the bundle of reforms to be announced at the latest plenary are likely to center on the economy and society – but not on civil liberties. And I think the more freedoms Chinese people have, the more paranoid the Chinese Communist Party will be about maintaining their central place in society.

So despite the obvious crisis mode of the US during this scandal, it’s not hard to imagine a future where the internet grows more free there, with more checks on power and civilian oversight on government snooping. At the same time, it’s not hard to imagine that in places like China and Russia, digital privacy, digital free speech takes a step backwards.

It’s a paradox of sorts because clearly, today, the Snowden revelations are hurting US influence, and yet down the line, they may actually help the US. If nothing else, the US is on the verge of having the grown-up debate about balancing the possibilities of technology against the requirements of a democratic, civil society. Certainly Snowden, from what we know, views it like this. In time, the crisis-hit US may be able to boast the kind of freedoms that will continue to assure it looks attractive as a society, and even world power, in contrast to its rivals in China and Russia. And that could very well matter when it comes to attracting global talent or incubating new ideas and industries. We’ll see.

China, NSA, Petrobras, Snowden, Greeenwald, Proof

So Brazil says the NSA mention of Petrobras shows the US is spying for economic gain – which is what the US accuses China of. Whether that is true or not will affect the trajectory of US-China cyber relations.

Says James Clapper:

“What we do not do, as we have said many times, is use our foreign intelligence capabilities to steal the trade secrets of foreign companies on behalf of — or give intelligence we collect to — U.S. companies to enhance their international competitiveness or increase their bottom line,” he said.

To prove Clapper is lying Greenwald would have to show a pretty obvious dotted line from the NSA to US oil companies, or at least US hedge funds. Otherwise, it’s entirely possible the US is spying on foreign companies but for the same reason the CIA tracks economic growth of nations around the world – simply to get a fuller picture of the world. You can learn a lot about a country’s politics by looking at its business and economics.