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29 Nov, 2016 22:58

‘Sniffers & taps on journalists’: WikiLeaks publishes emails as whistleblower Brown is paroled

‘Sniffers & taps on journalists’: WikiLeaks publishes emails as whistleblower Brown is paroled

Thousands of leaked emails from a US cybersecurity contractor were published by WikiLeaks to mark the release of whistleblowing journalist Barrett Brown from federal prison. Among other things, the emails discussed targeting journalists and governments.

Emails belonging to HBGary Federal were first obtained by hacktivist collective Anonymous in February 2011. WikiLeaks published them for the first time on Tuesday in the form of a searchable database comprised of some 60,000 emails. 

The release was dedicated to Brown, a Texas journalist who spent almost two years in federal prison for his work in reporting on the HBGary leaks and the 2012 hack of the private intelligence company Stratfor. Some 5.5 million emails from that hack were published by WikiLeaks between 2013 and 2014.

In January 2014, Brown was sentenced to 63 months behind bars for obstruction of justice, threatening a federal officer and being an accessory after the fact. He was paroled Tuesday.

Among the revelations contained in the HBGary Federal emails was the company’s proposal to spy on Russia using mobile telephony and wireless “sniffers,” hinting at capabilities of the NSA before they were disclosed by whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013.

Sniffing and fake personas

In a July 2010 email exchange, HBGary executive Greg Hoglund proposed “sniffing” operations in Russia, targeting cell phone operators Mobile TeleSystems (MTS) and Vimpelcom.

“NSA has all the collection resources you could imagine, CIA likewise has operatives coming out the wazooo. What they don't have is an ability to manage complex campaigns,” Hoglund wrote.

HBGary CEO Aaron Barr built upon the proposal by discussing the plan to infiltrate governments and groups using social media, by setting up fake “personas.”

“I will create a few personas for the executive members of the company so there can be some email traffic. You will at some point be able to use this guys [sic] accounts as compromised,” Barr wrote.

“If this looks too big we could probably pitch this as a whitepaper to either a large defense contractor like Mantech,” he added. After the 2011 hack and the resulting scandal, Barr had to resign, HBGary was sold to the Virginia-based ManTech, and the HBGary Federal subsidiary was shut down.

Collusion with Palantir

HBGary also worked with Palantir Technologies on a project targeting WikiLeaks and its volunteers, pitched to Bank of America before the whistleblowing organization released some of the bank’s documents.

Palantir, a big data analysis company serving the US military and intelligence communities, was founded by Peter Thiel – now a major backer of President-elect Donald Trump and member of his transition team.

Part of the strategy was to go after journalists who supported the work of WikiLeaks – specifically naming Glenn Greenwald (now editor of The Intercept and instrumental in publishing the Snowden disclosures).

“Without the support of people like Glenn [WikiLeaks] would fold,” said a presentation by HBGary, Palantir and Berico Technologies.

A December 2010 email from Barr to Palantir engineer Matthew Steckman gives a glimpse into how the presentation was put together.

“These are established proffessionals [sic] that have a liberal bent, but ultimately most of them if pushed will choose professional preservation over cause,” Barr wrote. That exact line made it into the presentation, which also contained a detailed dossier on WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange.

Among the proposed strategies were “disinformation” and creating messages intended to “sabotage or discredit the opposing organization.”

“Submit fake documents and then call out the error,” the presentation proposed – a tactic used against WikiLeaks when it began publishing emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair John Podesta in October.