The online leak of data pilfered from the National Security Agency more likely came from an agency insider than from hackers linked to Russia, according to an expert on the intelligence community.
"If Russia had stolen the hacking tools, it would be senseless to publicize the theft, let alone put them up for sale," James Bamford, a former naval intelligence officer, wrote in a column late Sunday evening. "It would be like a safecracker stealing the combination to a bank vault and putting it on Facebook."
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A small amount of the stolen information, comprising about 300 megabytes, was posted to a Tumblr blog last week by an unknown group referring to itself as the "Shadow Brokers." The group claimed to have obtained the information by hacking an organization known to cybersecurity experts as the Equation Group, a hacking outfit linked in the past to the NSA.
Some national security analysts were quick to link the alleged hack to the Russian government, as were many liberal commentators, who have increasingly sought to argue that recent cyberattacks on the Democratic Party should be viewed as a product of hostility from the Kremlin.
However, Bamford said there was no indication to support the argument, but that there was evidence to support the idea that an insider stole the data three years ago.
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"Rather than the NSA hacking tools being snatched as a result of a sophisticated cyberoperation by Russia or some other nation, it seems more likely that an employee stole them," Bamford wrote, pointing out that experts have traced the data to October 2013, five months after former contractor Edward Snowden exposed the agency's surveillance programs.
Bamford noted that the information exposed online would have come from the agency's specialized Tailored Access Operations, and given its age, was more likely intended to embarrass the agency than cause harm or bring a profit.
"We now have entered a period many have warned about, when NSA's cyberweapons could be stolen ... and used against us. It opens the door to criminal hackers, cyberanarchists and hostile foreign governments that can use the tools to gain access to thousands of computers in order to steal data, plant malware and cause chaos.
"It's one more reason why NSA may prove to be one of Washington's greatest liabilities rather than assets."