Understanding the GCHQ hacking toolkit

In Information Security ByTeam Acumin / 9th August 2014

Earlier this month, the campaigning US lawyer Glenn Greenwald released a seemingly genuine document that gave an intriguing insight in to the inner workings of GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), one of Britain’s three secret intelligence and security agencies.

Greenwald has been acting as an intermediary for Edward Snowden, the US computer professional who formally worked for the NSA. Snowden broke ranks in 2013 and released into the public domain a large cache of security information relating to both the US and UK.

The GCHQ-related document, released with an accompanying article by Greenwald, appears to be a detailed description of a toolkit for security operatives enabling them to intervene without detection in the digital lives and web related activities of their “targets”. Described as a “manipulation toolkit” by Wired Magazine, the devices seem to have been developed by GCHQ’s Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group (JTRIG).

The toolkit, as reported, certainly would give any digital intelligence personnel a versatile armoury with which to pursue their operations. Here are some prime examples, with the titles used for each technique or activity allegedly the ones designated by JTRIG:

Silverlord

This weapon targets websites displaying extremist video, through rigorous content removal.

Birdstrike

Offers monitoring of Twitter and automated data collection from profiles.

Fatyak

Performs similarly to Birdstrike, but this time automates public data retrieval from LinkedIn

Godfather

Automatically gathers public data from Facebook.

Spring Bishop

Tracks down private photos of reconnaissance targets on Facebook

Miniature Hero

This module provides agents with the ability to eavesdrop on Skype conversations. According to Wired Magazine, this tool:

“Immediately flags up concerns about the level of Microsoft’s involvement. It was in 2013, shortly after Snowden’s leaks first hit the papers, that it was revealed Microsoft had handed encrypted messages over to the NSA, so that it could infiltrate email, cloud storage and web chats.”

Burlesque

The ability to send bogus text messages, which presumably look convincing and genuine to the receiver.

Meanwhile, there’s a range of apps that can manipulate websites. These include a facility to ‘rig’ or disrupt online voting, as well as a feature to boost the number of page views a particular site receives. At the same time, messages on YouTube can be increased in prominence or amplified, apparently subverting the platform’s own techniques for distinguishing between and promoting different types of content.

All in all, the documentation released by Greenwald gives an impression of GCHQ having a wide range of subversive, disruptive, propagandising, and surveillance techniques at its disposal.

GCHQ responded to Greenwald by stating that the agency acts “in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework”, while the process is subjected to “rigorous oversight”.

Greenwald calls this a standard “boilerplate” response. However, one should, of-course, note that organisations committed to secrecy in the public interest are perhaps not always able to defend themselves as openly as they might like. To some extent, their hands are tied.

In conclusion, campaigners such as Greenwald do raise the stimulating possibility that it’s not only the cyber-criminals who are at work manipulating the digital world. Sometimes those defending us in the public interest can, apparently, be just as cunning.