The Panama Papers in 2016 highlighted the challenges facing investigators dealing with large document leaks. With over 11.5 million documents detailing more than 214,488 offshore entities, it took almost a year of analysis for the journalists involved to publish their initial findings with the help of data journalism software tools. Sorting and categorizing the files, let alone drawing connections between the entities referenced in them, is a painstaking task.
We are off and running into 2019 with raised concerns surrounding another potentially sensitive file exposure, this time courtesy of the extortionist threat actor known as ‘thedarkoverlord’ (TDO). As we reported previously, using a fresh Twitter account TDO claimed possession of documents detailing litigation connected to the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States.
Figure 1: TDO releases first dump of 9/11 litigation leak
Shortly after making these posts, Digital Shadows obtained an initial release of the files in question and – through a new partnership with Nuix’s digital investigation software – we were able to conduct our own analysis to interrogate TDO’s claims. This is an important feature of the service we provide to our customers. Rather than simply monitoring for their own assets, we also look to identify any exposure or sensitive information that could harm the organization or its employees, even if it originates from a third party. Leaks such as this provide us with ample new information to analyze.
This blog will provide an overview of our initial investigation and highlight the value in using a software that can easily search through and organize large data sets.
Methodology: the value of Nuix
The Nuix platform was crucial in speeding up our efforts to manually inspect and read through the files. This digital investigation tool helps with analyzing and extracting information from unstructured data, which was certainly fit for purpose considering the sheer extent of the files in hand (approximately 20,000 files).
Digital Shadows analysts used this tool to both sort and pinpoint specific files for further analysis. We can now use a single window to collate the data, break it down, and filter through it with our own search terms and custom queries. This is a gamechanger for anyone interested in digital forensic investigations, particularly when dealing with large, disparate sets of files such as these.
By using Nuix, we will be able to more easily identify any potential threats to our clients from this large data leak, as well as performing a more granular analysis of its contents. Although our investigation is still at an early stage, we’ve already been able to gain a good understand of the type of files present in the dump, which we’ve highlighted in this blog.
9/11 Files: the numbers
Nuix allowed our analyst team to easily visualize the number of different files types contained within the leak; this also meant we could then prioritize certain filetypes over others, allowing us to get the most relevant analysis to our customers in the quickest time possible. Here is what we saw:
- PNG files – 7,515
- Unknown binaries – 5,062
- Microsoft Word documents – 2,206
- Borland dBase documents – 1,319
- PDFs – 1,222
- JPEG/JFIF – 1,203
- Microsoft Excel spreadsheets – 192
Figure 2: Breakdown of file types shown in the Nuix platform
Above (Figure 2) we can see our main ‘Workbench’ (the case or project being worked on in the tool) with all file types organised by volume. Results were varied and, at first, did not appear to indicate any immediate patterns. Through Nuix’s ‘Bad Extensions’ functionality, however, we could determine that a small percentage of the files (157) had the incorrect file type assigned. While we cannot state this with absolute certainty, this could be an indication of some level of modification or obfuscation of the files prior to their release.
Figure 3: Clear visualization of the data in Nuix’ ‘Context View’
The range of visualizations in Nuix will add significant value to our research. The ‘Context View’ displayed above (Figure 3) was one of the many ways in which we were able to manipulate the data and draw out patterns or connections between entities. For example, the above view showed us which specific individuals appeared multiple times across the file set, as well as what type of documents these mentions were found in (such as emails, spreadsheets, presentations).
9/11 Files: the contents
At the time of our current investigation, TDO’s claims that the files are highly-sensitive and damaging if made public seem doubtful. For the most part, the dump contains legal letters and documents surrounding 9/11 lawsuits and insurance claims. More worrying and harmful documents may emerge as the investigation continues, or if the group leak more material in future. Nevertheless, the contents we’ve analyzed generally fall into the following categories:
- Law firm correspondences – letters from various attorneys working on 9/11 claims. A variety of financial, aviation, insurance companies and property owners are mentioned throughout.
- Litigation papers –papers relating to liability and legal cases for those parties involved. Other papers include associated legal proposals, arguments and requests for various depositions.
Figure 4: Litigation paper example included in the leak
- Airport security – airport safety and security policies, as well as logs for security checkpoints at certain airports implicated in the attacks.
- Insurance claims –correspondences between the insurers and re-insurers. Some spreadsheets detailing case and claim numbers, with the relevant figures attached, are also included.
Conclusion: case closed?
TDO’s questionable claims that highly-sensitive, confidential data had been leaked – as well as the protracted manner of its release via Steemit – suggest the actor was aiming for publicity and attention. To counter such headline-grabbing claims, it is important to get into the data as fast as possible – a capability that Nuix pride their software upon – and verify it. The ability to break down the data through different entities and vary the ways in which this information can be visualized are just a select few of key areas in which Nuix has helped us so far.
Our initial findings lean towards the notion that there may be more noise than substance to this leak. But this is not to say that, if TDO receives little to no payment for this extortion attempt, new batches of files will be drip-fed or leaked in a similar manner. Digital Shadows will continue its investigation, and with the help of Nuix’s intuitive platform, will alert relevant parties in the event that truly sensitive information is released.
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